I think it was Anthony Bourdain who said that the best sauce in the world is the goop inside a shrimp’s head. While I’m fond of sucking on that myself, squid ink might rival shrimp brains for the superlative.
This occurred to me the other night at the Upper West Side’s Tangled Vine Wine Bar & Kitchen, while avidly slurping fideos negros. The Spanish dish is made from short, thin noodles likely of Moorish origin, plus braised cuttlefish, all dyed midnight black by oceanic ink, with a squirt of garlicky aioli for richness. It’s wonderful, super-saturated with brine.
Concentrate on the fideos though, or on your fellow eaters, because Tangled Vine looks like it was assembled from a Pottery Barn kit—all beige, with weirdly generic mirrored sconces, and stucco walls decorated with faux-stonework, like a nightmarish Greek restaurant in a suburban mall. But the place has two things to recommend it: First, a thoughtful old-world wine list that focuses on sustainable, organic, and biodynamic bottles, and second, some very fine Spanish-accented cooking by Dave Seigal, formerly of the Catalan restaurant Mercat. The food is not particularly ambitious, but it’s pleasurably simple, wine-friendly, squarely hitting those salty-rich-tart-fresh buttons. The menu lists bar snacks as well as larger plates that work as individual mains or shared dishes.
I probably can’t ask you to get too excited about crostini. (What if we called them pintxos, their Basque name?) But two crusts crowned with a rough mash of chickpeas, Spanish blood sausage, and apricots prompted silence at our table—we munched the sweet-savory treat contentedly. Another version, mounded with caramelized cauliflower glued to the bread with Gruyère cheese, was almost as tasty, as was one featuring bitter-edged kale, sharp pecorino, and a soft-cooked quail egg. If you just want a bite, to avoid drinking on an empty stomach, these are good choices.
The smaller snacks also include a selection of cheese and charcuterie, which the restaurant has had the good sense to source from places like Salumeria Biellese, Despaña, and La Quercia. But don’t give in to the siren call of homemade potato chips sprinkled with smoked paprika, which, against all odds, taste like nothing special.
Along the way, you’ll want some wine. The list is compiled and managed by Evan Spingarn, co-author of the Ultimate Wine Lover’s Guide. There are about 160 bottles available, 30 of them by-the-glass. While “sustainable” is something of a loosey-goosey designation, the biodynamic wines are particularly intriguing. They’re made without pesticides or herbicides, seeking to let the vineyard live as a self-sustaining ecosystem through various holistic methods—like encouraging natural, beneficial fungi and cover crops. Celebrating these wines is a worthy project, and the list is an interesting read, full of descriptions and definitions, even including a note that “this is a safe space” to try sherry for the first time, in case you were worried you’d be laughed out of town.
Thirty by-the-glass options is an unusually large number, and most are fairly priced. One of the best offerings is an organic Spanish Grenache as fruity and rounded as strawberry cobbler—and for $8, not a bad deal. The generous pours are more like what you’d mete out for a friend than the stingier amounts favored by most restaurants. And we loved a 2007 Domaine Chavy-Martin white Burgundy that smelled of stinky cheese but tasted clean and mineral.
Tangled Vine also highlights several sparkling wines, including an organic German Gilabert Cava from Penedes, Spain, of the brut natura variety, meaning it has no added sugar—most sparkling wines, including champagne, do. This Cava, for $10 a pour, is startlingly fresh and zingy. While crunching those disappointing potato chips, I drank a 2008 Jean-Baptiste Riesling classified as kabinett (light-bodied, made with fully ripened grapes from the main harvest), the sweetness of which cut through the salty chips in a cheering way.
Seigal’s cooking is not strictly Spanish, more of a freestyle Mediterranean-Californian-wine-bar mash-up, sprinkled here and there with tired trends. Case in point: We skipped the Berkshire pork-belly sliders. But the chef excels with anything Iberian-inflected. For one thing, there’s that fideos negros. (The cuttlefish in the dish is so tender and luscious, it reminds me of scallops.)
One night, a special of pea shoots sautéed in butter with raisins and pine nuts gave the spring green an appealing Catalan spin. We ordered it to counteract all the fried potatoes, but ended up scraping the bowl clean. In a dish that’s best for sharing, the crisp shoestring potatoes popular in Spain are mixed into a mushroom fricassee to odd, hay-like effect, the whole thing topped with a wobbly fried duck egg. Spill the yolk and the plate becomes a sticky, delicious mess. Seigal reaches up into Southern France for a pissaladière, the classic savory tart covered with caramelized onions and anchovies that melt into each other on a cracker-thin crust.
If you want something more restrained, you can’t do better than the grilled scallops, six fat specimens that each perch on a slice of caramelized cauliflower with a bit of blood orange, all dressed with a tart green vinaigrette made from puréed manzanilla olives. Skip the Montauk cod—it might be local, but the Atlantic population is overfished.
Wine bars have proliferated in recent years, profiting from the public’s willingness to lap up “small plates” for big prices and drink mass-produced bottles. But Tangled Vine is a rarer animal—a conscientious wine bar with quality food. Plus it’s a safe space! Bring your therapist for a glass of sherry. It is the Upper West Side, after all.