Eat Up Downtown: The Wine Cellar
Some restaurants were so excited about Eat Up Downtown that they decided to extend the promotion for an extra week. I had already visited Koja Sushi and Café NOLA @ MOCA. I wanted to take advantage of the promotion to the fullest extent, so I decided to choose yet another restaurant. This time, I chose a Jacksonville institution – the Wine Cellar.
The Wine Cellar opened in 1974 as a retail wine shop featuring a small bistro. Within three years, the business had expanded into a full restaurant under the management of Vicki Dugan. Ms. Dugan purchased the restaurant in 1997 and continues handling every aspect of the business to this day. I can’t be completely sure, but I believe she was the person who greeted me at the door and showed me to my seat.
The restaurant has managed something I wasn’t sure was possible – it truly gives diners the feeling of dining in a European wine cellar right in the middle of Jacksonville. The low beamed ceilings, candlelight and division of the space into several intimate rooms set the mood very well. Of course, wine is the star. Every surface, shelf and even the art on the walls is about the wine. The Wine Cellar consistently garners the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. I must warn you, the wine list is daunting, but the servers seemed happy to make pairing suggestions. Choices range from the $6 single glass of Beringer Zinfandel to the $575 bottle of 1971 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. I’ll let you guess which I chose.
The customary bread and butter came first. The bread was very well made. The crust was crispy with a chewy and satisfying interior. For the first course, I chose the chilled tomato gazpacho. (Please excuse the poor quality of the photos as the restaurant is very dark and I felt I should be discreet.)
The tomatoes were moderately sized. The spice was not too strong, as some gazpachos can go a bit overboard. This was not painfully spicy. It was not quite as cold as some gazpachos I have had, but it was refreshing nonetheless. The herbs and vegetables other than tomato were featured heavily and very fresh. Personally, I love a gazpacho which allows the tomato to be the star. This was a very good gazpacho in that sense.
For my second course, I chose the Farm Raised Tilapia. It was topped with crab meat, béarnaise sauce, tomatoes and green onion and was served over a bed of risotto. The piece of fish was very large. I buy tilapia often at a very good fishmonger and I am unable to find filets of that size. I was also very impressed with how accurately it was cooked. The majority of the white fish I have had in Jacksonville restaurants has been overcooked. This filet was cooked perfectly, though.
Unfortunately, as delightful as the fish was, the whole plate was under seasoned. I always feel awkward using a salt shaker at a fine dining establishment. It’s as if I’m signaling to the chef that they missed the mark. I did eventually use the salt shaker and the dish came alive. The sauce and risotto was vastly improved by the simple addition of a few shakes of salt. I am sad to report, however, that the crab remained tasteless and, if you can imagine it, indistinguishable from the risotto when tasted together.
For my dessert course, I had a bit of a problem. Part of the reason I had chosen the Wine Cellar as my final Eat Up Downtown selection was Tiramisu. I am a lifelong seeker and lover of tiramisu. When I received the prix fixe menu, it was not among the choices, though it was listed on the Eat Up Downtown website menu. I was horribly disappointed by this. I do understand that situations arise which would call for a change in plans, so I chose between an Orange Amaretto Sabayon and Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding. I chose the bread pudding.
The dish was extremely heavy and dense. I don’t prefer bread pudding this way, but I understand that it is not unusual. There was a chocolate sauce drizzled over the top and a dollop of whipped cream with half-strawberry garnish. I was not offered coffee.
The heavy and dated style of the dessert leads me to my only negative point about Wine Cellar. It is deeply in danger of becoming dated. The décor is still fresh and transports diners as it should, but there is no sense, either in the décor or the cuisine, that the restaurant is aware that it is 2009. The palate of America is evolving and American restaurants wishing to recreate a European experience must begin to trust diners to be able to appreciate that experience with authenticity.
This is a very nice restaurant, but the clientele it will be seeking in the next few years will not have been dining there for the past 30 years. Young foodies are seeking new challenges to their taste buds and authentic experiences. A 1980’s approach to European cuisine will not satisfy people who have actually eaten in a French or Italian wine cellar restaurant. That said, I would not classify the Wine Cellar’s food as not being authentic – especially as I have not had the opportunity to try anything other than the gazpacho (which was the best part of the meal) from their standard menu. I would simply call it conservatively seasoned and very “safe.” Slight changes in the menu would quickly remedy the dated feeling.
The Wine Cellar is trusted, venerable and extremely fine dining. It shows up again and again for every restaurant honor Jacksonville has to offer. I have suspicions that my experience was a function of the prix fixe menu. The food was good, but if you go there looking for the tilapia or bread pudding I describe, you will be disappointed. It is not on the menu published on their website or, presumably, their regular menu. The website may be outdated, but having seen customer comments from other diners using the prix fixe menu on separate occasions, it seems that they are solely on offer as prix fixe options. Therefore, I cannot provide regular menu pricing information for the dishes I was served.
Another small final caveat for those of you visiting during the Eat Up Downtown promotion – an 18% gratuity is automatically added to your bill. (This was not the case at the other two restaurants I visited.) That information is not provided on the Eat Up website, but it is printed at the bottom of the menu at the restaurant itself. The promotion offers the three courses for $25, but after the mandatory tip and a single glass of the cheapest wine on offer my total bill came to $39.14.
I am customarily a big tipper, if for no other reason than I am a poor mathematician and live in fear of under tipping. But, I have also found that servers who are guaranteed a tip on a budget promotion do not work nearly as hard to please their customers. My service was good. My server was friendly and reasonably prompt, but I was not treated to the smiling and outgoing conversation she was obviously having with her other customers until she asked me, in complete earshot of the people around me, how many of the other prix fixe restaurants I had tried. I know that she was only trying to make small talk, but I couldn’t hold back a twinge of embarrassment in sight of the other diners whose tables were littered with bottles of expensive wines and dishes which were obviously not on the prix fixe menu.
I would recommend the Wine Cellar for special occasions, events and romantic dinners. I would not recommend it for a casual or first date or for groups with non-drinkers or very young people in their party. It would be the ideal setting for a small retirement party, engagement dinner or anniversary. If you are willing to splurge, it has an incomparable wine list and good food in a beautiful and intimate setting.
The Wine Cellar is located at 1314 Prudential Drive in Jacksonville. The restaurant can be contacted at (904) 398-8989 or visit their website at www.winecellarjax.com.
Wine Cellar storefront: www.eventective.com
all other photos copyright © 2009 by jodi a. kasten • all rights reserved