Through an open doorway on Melrose Avenue, up a few steps, is a secret garden with walls washed in burnt orange and tall wooden planter boxes filled with pretty lettuces, feathery fennel, carrots, chard and lemon grass. There, Chardonnay and Zinfandel grapevines clamber over trellises and culinary herbs cast their fragrance into the night air. The sprawling L-shaped patio is paved in terra cotta tiles and set with jewel-toned Moroccan mosaic tables and wicker armchairs. Even in early winter, with the help of strategically placed heat lamps, the patio is magic, an urban oasis reminiscent of the south of France where wine bottles litter the table and guests linger, talking and drinking, until well past midnight.
Vinoteque on Melrose is a welcome new addition to the avenue's recharged restaurant row. With the Foundry on Melrose next door, the Village Idiot pub just east and 8 oz. Burger Bar just west, the street's night life is perking up, ready for a casual night out, bar-hopping or settling in for dinner.
Previously, owner Gil Ran and sommelier Ryan Hess had a short run with Vinoteque in Culver City before relocating to this address in a building below a music school. Inside, it's just about as large as the patio, with rough wooden floors reclaimed from a distressed farm fence, simple wooden tabletops and Merlot-colored leather chairs. A wooden wine rack wraps around one corner.
No velvet rope here: You can almost always find a table, which is a relief. The menu is, for the most part, casual and impromptu. There's charcuterie and cheese, "bites" and, if you like, bigger plates too. Vinoteque stays open late and has a great wine program with an ever-changing array of wines by the glass. But to be blunt, the wines outshine the food, which is perfectly fine but not particularly exciting.
Vinoteque is a multiple-use restaurant. You can use it as a wine bar, dropping by for a plate of fine house-cured charcuterie and prosciutto or the succulent lomo (cured pork loin) with a baguette and all the fixings. Or you can settle in for a long evening of nibbling through small plates and sampling wines by the glass. These are the real strength of the well-curated wine list. Can't find anything you want by the glass? If you commit to buying two glasses, the sommelier will open any bottle on the list, and sell the remaining wine through the communal wine table. It's a chance to try whatever you like without having to foot the bill for the entire bottle. A good show, if you have a curious nature, since the list encompasses about 350 labels and includes a nice array of German whites, red and white Burgundies and Italian bottles. The California selection is the least interesting.
Charcuterie and cheese you expect at a wine bar, but the newer generation such as Barbrix in Silver Lake, Palate Food + Wine in Glendale and Noir and Vertical in Pasadena are really restaurants too, some entirely small plates, others more ambitious.
Vinoteque's menu rolls past the wine bar basics to cover a great deal of ground, mentioning "European-size plates" along the way. Say what? Smaller than American portions, the waiter tells us. Not by my lights. The "bites" are quite shareable. And main courses are generous enough, though they are sometimes pompously plated on oversized porcelain squares with lots of white space and dribs and drabs of sauce and such.
I quite like the bites, especially the plump shrimp cloaked in a buttery sauce scented with the French curry vadouvan, a beautiful match with a white Burgundy or Rheingau Riesling. I was wary of gnocchi in Port and Stilton sauce, but the gnocchi are very tender, and the sauce has a lovely balance of richness to sweetness. It's a fine match for a Bordeaux or Cabernet. An order of fluffy lamb meatballs in a sprightly tomato sauce comes with a little nugget of goat cheese at their heart. Sometimes there's bone marrow to scoop out of the bone with a little spoon and spread on toast.
Pasta is decent too, notably pappardelle with a nuanced lamb ragù and shaved pecorino. Salads, some of which come from the raised planter beds, are pleasant. The best is frisée with fat delicious lardons and a poached egg rolled in panko crumbs and fried.
Main courses sometimes seem as if they issue from an entirely different kitchen, probably because the menu was designed by former chef Josh Smookler but is now being executed by KC Ma, who has worked at Water Grill and Craft. With the exception of the rustic roasted chicken served in its juices with caramelized Brussels sprouts and potatoes, and the skirt steak with fries, they tend to resemble something an aspiring cook with a subscription to Bon Appetit would whip up. Duck breast is fine, but the butternut squash purée smeared across the plate doesn't look appetizing. The flavors, though, are focused and direct. It would probably make a better impression to lose the pretentious square plates and any self-consciously trendy touches.
It would be hard for the kitchen to outshine the wine anyway. The list offers something for everybody. And while it's not deep in any particular region, it gets in a bit of everything, including reds from Molise or Abruzzo in Italy, a Shiraz from South Africa and a red from Texas. There are some big dogs too: an Ornellaia, a Scavino "Bric del Fiasc" Barolo, a Château Cos d'Estournel and some grand cru Burgundies. But those aren't the bulk of the list, where prices start at $29 for a Pieropan Soave from the Veneto region and a number of bottles are less than $50. Drink up.
For dessert, I have one suggestion: the milky coffee and irresistible warm churros. If you're feeling flush, follow it with a glass of Trockenbeerenauslese or Banyuls Grand Cru.
For a relatively new wine bar and restaurant, Vinoteque is bringing a fresh focus on wine to the avenue in a relaxed Mediterranean-themed setting. And for that we should all be grateful. Now if they'd only do something about those awkward plates.