Ambiance: Casual and comfortable mix of funky urbanity and classic tones; gets noisy with a big crowd
Service: Good, but plenty busy
The word enoteca literally means “wine library” in Italian; however, the Italians use the word to refer to a gathering place where people can meet, sip a little wine and nibble a bit. In short, it’s a wine bar. It is similar to the concept of the Spanish tapas bar or the meze of Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish cuisine.
Rezaz Enoteca, the more casual face of Biltmore Village darling Rezaz Restaurant, is really a melting pot of all Mediterranean cuisines and more. Enoteca is open from 9 a.m. until late at night, and is a showcase of the flavors of the Mediterranean region, with Italy as the strongest influence on the menu. The food that hails from the sun-drenched lands that encircle the Mediterranean, a region that touches the soil of three continents, is a mix of flavors influenced by the region’s history. Control of the Mediterranean meant power in the ancient world, and each of the empires that vied for its possession made a lasting cultural mark that can easily be tasted today.
Reza Setayesh, chef and owner of the Rezaz restaurants, has a penchant for the sort of fusion that this power struggle fostered. The Enoteca menu, though quite Italian at heart, dances from here to there, drifting from North Africa to Turkey. For example, the cinnamon-tomato jam that adorns the crab cake shows Moroccan flair, while the lamb burger is more Turkish than Tuscan. The saffron that shows up in a dish of mussels found its way to the Mediterranean via the Arabs, who also brought rice, oranges and reportedly the recipe for hummus, a dip that shows up on the menu as one of the building blocks of the make-your-own antipasto offering.
The mix-and-match antipasto idea, while nothing revolutionary, is fantastic. For a person with a short attention span, a picky palate or a proclivity for sampling, it makes for a great light meal or an excellent appetite-whetter while waiting for a table in the more formal Rezaz right next door. Building materials for the antipasto include a selection of Italian meats, such as, prosciutto, coppa and soprasetta; various dips; marinated vegetables or seafood; and olives and Italian cheese. Patrons may select from one ($3) to eight ($18) items to satisfy varying degrees of hunger.
I made a lavish-enough lunch with five choices ($13): speck, asparagus, taleggio with onion jam, roasted salmon escabeche and roasted eggplant dip. The salmon escabeche was rather oddly sweet and vaguely Moroccan-spiced, but quite a good little nosh, while the speck – wrapped around a soft hunk of taleggio and the chilled asparagus with a little eggplant dip – was delicious. Cubed focaccia drizzled with balsamic added some weight, though I hardly wanted for food. A seared, very fresh hunk of tuna over caponata ($13) had a generous depth of flavor, and a heartiness guaranteed to easily carry a luncher through to supper.
Returning for dinner, we found the atmosphere to have softened a bit. Perhaps it was the absence of the hurried lunch crowd, or maybe it was the fuzzy feeling from several glasses of wine, but the place just seemed to feel better at night. The brick-colored walls appeared warmer, and the rather high noise level – due to the tin ceiling, wood floors and an enthusiastic crowd – seemed less piercing. The oversized, retro-funky light fixtures that seem to hover like multicolored spaceships overhead emitted a light that cast a flattering glow on the old pressed-tin ceiling, highlighting its features. The lighting had a similarly flattering effect on the crowd. (Again, however, it could have been the wine.)
The wine is indeed a lovely thing, and the servers are well-versed in its ways. The selection is nowhere near a library’s worth, and in that way the literal translation of Enoteca’s name is misleading. I have never fancied myself a wine snob, but those who do ought to find something they like amongst the largely Italian list. A tidy little selection of dessert wines is also offered to supplement the pastry chef’s artistic and quite often divine offerings. An excellent assortment of beers is available as well, representing fabulous breweries like Duck-Rabbit, Ayinger and Dogfish.
Our choices for dinner were fairly simple, cozy even, and perhaps that is the point of Enoteca. A salad of arugula, cucumber, tomato and a mustardy-orange vinaigrette was basic and lovely, with perfect baby arugula leaves – though the tomatoes were decidedly not what they could have been, given the season. A bruschetta with white beans, tomato and basil was a showcase of summer flavor, but missed the mark on the comfort aspect. I like my beans al dente, but as a topping for bruschetta, they didn’t seem to work all that well; I expended enough energy chasing those beans around the plate after they rolled off of the bread that I might have canceled out the calories I consumed eating the appetizer.
A dish of mussels was honest, elegant and excellently executed ($8, or $10 with pasta). I slurped up the broth with a spoon, and wished I’d asked for some bread to soak it all up. The reason it might have slipped my mind was that I was busily snatching pommes frits from my companion’s plate, which made quite nice dippers in their own right. They were served alongside a very basic preparation of grilled terres major beef that my companion munched on with some fervor, uttering strings of words like “meat, salt, pepper, good.” It was little more than that on his plate, indeed, and all the better for it: frites, mid-rare steak and a pat of Chianti butter for extra moisture. Add a glass of red wine, and you have yourself a fine, quick meal, – and for only $12.
Simplicity, for the most part, is thrown out the window when it comes time for dessert. I’ve ranted and raved about the pastry chef at Rezaz before. What that chef does with chocolate drives me to distraction. So much was I consumed with the chocolate tasting that I don’t remember a thing about the rustic blueberry crostata with semolina crust across the table from me. I had a rich pot de creme, a sumptuous and decadent chocolate terrine and a quite refreshing chocolate-mint sorbet, all washed down with a glass of port. The waitress rightly took my silence for reverence with a knowing nod.
Five glasses of wine between us, two first-course options, two petite entrees and two desserts came to only $72.70 after tax. Food that basks in its own simplicity and delicious desserts are enough of a draw, but with the added bonus of affordability, Enoteca has come up with a winning formula.