The Morrell Wine Bar (1 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-262-7700) is one of the city’s great spots for downing a glass or two — its extensive list boasts more than 2,000 different bottles. Pairing food with wine can be tricky, though, so we got in touch with chef Jake Klein, who offered some of his top pairing picks, his favorite wines to drink, and an amusing story of how he got drunk at the twee age of 10.
What do you think makes a great wine bar?
I think one thing that makes this place especially unique is the huge amount of wines by the glass. It creates a great experience for oenophiles, since we have over 100 wines by the glass. I started a few months ago, and I changed the format of the menu. It was old, stodgy type-food, with appetizers and entrées, and I changed it to predominantly small plates. We have about 20 different plates of raw stuff, cured, salads, and it makes it great for coming in and trying a glass and experimenting.
With a wine bar, do you match the food to the wine, or vice versa?
I went about it more about flavor profiles. Obviously there are key foods that I don’t highlight [on the menu] that are historically not great with wine. My thought process when I first came was to talk with the bartender and sommelier about the general flavor profiles one finds in wine, like berries and spice, and from there, look at the food flavors.
What are the restaurant’s best food-and-wine pairings?
I’m doing a black-pepper crab with shallots, garlic, and ginger on brioche crostini, and we’re doing a Denver-style cut lamb rib that looks like a spare rib. I made a spice rub [for the lamb] with cocoa nibs, piment d’Espelette, and brown sugar, and we’re serving that with an avocado puree. Syrah and Grenache in general would go well with the lamb, champagne with the crab. We had a great blanc de blancs from Roederer. And I’m doing a bone marrow with cinnamon and that was a knockout combination with Albariño. It was really interesting. It’s about trying to find interesting food-and-wine pairings. With bone marrow, you immediately think of big reds with lots of tannin, but it went really, really well with the white.
What’s the clientele like at Morell?
It’s very local Monday through Friday and for happy hour. It’s a lot of Christie’s, NBC, Today show people, the hedge-fund dudes, ladies that lunch. The weekends are a mix. You’ve got European tourists but also the very upper-crust people that live in the neighborhood and want a snack. We’re their local cafeteria. They come down from their $15 million apartment and stroll over for a snack and a $300 bottle of wine.
Do people ever get flustered by the incredibly long list of more than 2,000 wines available?
I think some people do. We get a good mix of different levels of wine people — some beginners and some who know what they want. That’s why I did small plates, to lighten it up and let people try different things. We all start in the beginning. I grew up around food and wine, and I still get anxious when I hear people talking about the flavors of shoe leather and wet cement. I don’t know what shoe leather tastes like!
Because you’re adjacent to the Morell Wine Store, does that influence the wines that are available to customers?
There is. I think depending on what product you’re talking about, but we’re trying to make it so the wines you taste can also be picked up in the store. A friend of mine makes a great vinho verde called Vera, and we just started carrying that, and I’ve seen people have a bottle and then order a case of it at the store.
What’s your favorite type of wine to drink?
I like ones from the Jura [in France]. I find them interesting, and I like that oxidized note on the wine, and being a nice Jewish boy, I love a great roast chicken, and it’s just a knockout combination. And Spanish wines are great for entertaining. They’re very accessible.
What was your first experience getting drunk as a young adult?
I started way early. Like, embarrassingly early. My parents had gone out for New Year’s Eve, and some grad students from the University of Miami lived next door. I was 10 or 11, and they let me hang out at their party and then they’d tuck me into bed back home when it was time. But somehow the punches got mixed up, and I got really, really drunk. But it was great because I had all these girls taking care of me!
So since you work around wine all day, do you just come back home and drink straight whiskey?
You are correct.