Who doesn’t love to graze? Wine bars have the formula down: You eat a little something, you drink a little something, and then you do it again. Over and over until, not just your appetite, but also your curiosity is sated.
But full-blown, table-service restaurants, even those that deliver your meal as a swarm of tiny bites, haven’t caught on in the wine department. You might be moving from a creamy, cheesy dip to a vinaigrette-dressed salad to a slab of grilled meat, but because you just plunked down $20 for a glass—or you’ve bought a whole bottle—you’re strapped to a wine that works splendidly with some dishes and clashes outrageously with others.
There should be more places like Saint Martha. At this year-old restaurant in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, every wine on the list of 50 (plus or minus a few) is available in four sizes of pour: three-ounce taste, full glass, 12-ounce piché, or bottle. As you eat, you can devise your own flight, following any of hundreds of different paths, soaring (given some quirky selections) over mysterious terrain. Sometimes there’s turbulence, but if you plan it right—or trust in the palates of the crew—it’s a fascinating and pretty smooth trip. Plus, the in-flight meal, courtesy of the young chef Nick Erven, is darned fun.
The brain child of opening wine director Mary Thompson, who’s since moved on the wine list ranges from a Caves Jean Bourdy Côtes du Jura 1983, a bottle of which costs about the price of a ticket from LAX to Paris (and which, we recently learned, has just been sold), to a bargain $4 taste of Broadbent Vinho Verde. Served in a flute to accentuate its subtle fizz, the easy-peasy Portuguese white was very cold and very tart-sweet on a recent night at Saint Martha.
My pal Jon and I clung to that vinho verde through the juniper-cured salmon with smoked goat cheese, pickle, and everything-bagel churro. As beautifully seed-, salt-, and toasted allium–flavored as its namesake, only greasier, the churro was delicious. It was dense, too, but the wine’s bright bubbles lightened the load.
It was a fitting launch to a festive meal. Windowless but airy, Saint Martha encourages buoyancy. With its white coffered ceiling, open kitchen lined in white subway tiles, and white dining room walls dotted with odds and ends—a ukelele, Warhol’s famous print of the Hindenberg exploding, a neon sign reading “hipster” over the dish pass—Saint Martha feels like a dirigible cruise for millennials. The vessel’s crew is competent and relaxed. After that lip-smacky Broadbent, we figured we’d sit back, put ourselves in their hands, and float through the friendly Saint Martha waters for the rest of the evening.
It turned out to be a bit of a long one. Building dishes that look like little dioramas, the kitchen was in no great hurry. But that was okay. There was plenty to drink. We took a southerly route through the wine list, gliding from the Mediterranean to, of all places, Arizona, where rocker/winemaker Maynard James Keenan, singer from the progressive metal band Tool, grows his grapes biodynamically. His 2012 Merkin Chupacabra Blanca is a white blend with a wacky multiple personality. It gets its oil-leak aromatics from gewurtztraminer and its richness from chardonnay and chenin blanc. Against a dish of mixed, smoked baby carrots in a sauce of sticky-sweet tamarind and spicy Sriracha, its flowery riesling and malvasia came right out. And an acid pang from the sauvignon blanc lured us back for another sip.
“Chicken skin granola with quince, sunchoke, parsnip milk, and shaved frozen foie gras” sounds wacky, too. But it was more mild-mannered than you’d think. Cereal-like, honey-crusted nuggets of almonds, millet, oats, quinoa, and chicken cracklings in a root veg–infused dairy puddle with a maple-y smoked quince paste, it tasted like wholesome breakfast food. When the waitress came by and shaved that foie on top of it, and we felt giddy as kids dumping sugar on their Grape Nuts.
Playing the role of the morning juice was another of Keenan’s wines, the Merkin Chupacabra Rosa 2013. Exceedingly light-colored for a sangiovese blend, it had a tingly, blood-orange flavor and bone-dry finish. We stuck to it through the steak and oyster tartare.
Hefty cubes of pork belly followed, braised to just the right yin-yang of tacky fat and crunch. The deep, dark black-garlic porridge beneath them matched the deep, dark black pepper notes in the first red we tasted: Angoris Fruili Colli Orientali Schioppettino 2011, made from an ancient Slovenian grape whose pedigree goes back at least until the 13th century.
With the pecan wood–smoked brisket, we flew off the radar. For this slab of campfire-flavored beef beneath a thick, ebony coat of chili-hoisin sauce, your average Northern Californian would’ve pulled out the zinfandel, and those two demons—the beef and the wine—would have stomped on each others’ toes. But that’s not how they roll in the City of Angels. The Mustiguillo Mestizaje Bobal 2012 we were poured was light, tart, and nearly twinkle-toed with orange peel and hibiscus flavors. In Valencia where this bottle is from, bobal is usually a wallflower, used for blending. But here, the grape proved a lithe dance partner to that brisket, lifting the dish’s brooding firepit flavors and refreshing our palates.
For dessert, a swarthy, chewy date and toffee cake came with Meyer lemon marmalade and an earthy buckwheat ice cream. Jean Bourdy Galant Des Abbesses ‘Liqueur,’ a mulled and fortified wine from Arlay, had the menthol dimension to make like a digestif with the desserts. We ended the flight with glasses of Rare Wine Company’s Baltimore Rainwater Madeira. Filled with flavors of pineapple and pear, it was a nice, smooth landing to a long, strange, and exhilarating trip.
740 Western Ave.; 213-387-2300; saintmartharestaurant.com.