On a still-forlorn stretch of 29th street, on the fringe of the rapidly gentrifying NoMad, Scottish-born sommelier Michael Coll opened a cavernous temple to wining and Italian-style dining. Despite the lofty name — Wine Disciples (129 W 29th St Door 2, 212-239-4199) — the concept is rooted in accessibility. You needn’t be a student of wine to appreciate what Coll has constructed: the physical manifestation of his ceaseless curiosity into a combined wine shop and restaurant, which should please wine geeks and casual drinkers alike for its range of affordable, offbeat, and rare selections.
Coll honed his knowledge of the fermented drink as a sommelier at Milos and the late Town, before eventually tackling this personal project. Opening in July 2015, he selected a former Garment District showroom, on an admittedly “quiet block,” for the dual-purpose venture. Opening a fledgling wine shop on a less trodden street takes plenty of grit, let alone taking on the compounding complexities of debuting a restaurant and wine bar at the same time.
Fortunately, Coll has veteran chef Brian Leth at the helm in the dining room next door. Previously of Vinegar Hill House and Prune, Leth turns out a range of Italian-inspired dishes, including antipasti, crudo, pizzas, pastas, salads, fish, and meat, much of it cooked in the wood-fired oven. The wines, especially Coll’s by-the-glass selection (which I tasted comprehensively), are unusual, well-priced, and delicious, and pair well with Leth’s food. If not ordering a bottle, patrons can sample in 3 or 6 ounce pours, which range from $5-9, and $10-$18, respectively; and because most of the list overlaps with the shop, customers who like what they drink during dinner can walk next door (the store remains open until 11 p.m.), and buy that bottle on the spot.
On a recent weekday dinner visit, I sampled impeccably fresh East Coast oysters (one for $3, six for $17) with a spritely, organic, scheurebe sekt, a German grape infrequently found in a dry, sparkling format. Next, the char of grilled radicchio ($12), served as foil to a dressing of sweet honey and tangy grapefruit, the combination marrying nicely to a full-bodied timarasso (another obscure white grape, also organic) from Piedmont, Italy. A prosciutto and melon dish just missed the mark due to underripe cantaloupe ($14), but shredded lamb neck, punctuated by salty, sharp pecorino, served over fregola (similar to Israeli couscous) ($20), tasted pleasingly unctuous and savory. Paired with a brisk, mineral-driven gamay from old, organically farmed vines in the Mâconnais, the wine sliced clean through the fat. Hot coppa and cremini pizza ($18) came out chewy rather than crisp (good, if you prefer that style), and whole beets ($12) were served intact, with blackened tops and an accent of pillowy ricotta. In addition to dinner, Leth has recently launched brunch. Dishes include a duck egg benedict pizza, and a “BEC,” or bacon, egg, and cheese calzone.
On a Tuesday night, diners could have their pick of seats, either at the custom cast pewter bar, or one of the many tables that extend through the expansive room. A Moroccan eight-point star pattern in the encaustic cement floor tiles provides visual candy in the otherwise unadorned space. In fact, the restaurant borders on too big, a feeling accentuated by the understated decor, as though Coll channeled most of his personality into the wine list instead. Perhaps it’s blasphemous for a New Yorker to criticize a project for these qualities, especially when I regularly complain about cramped tables leading to elbows in my pasta.
The footprint of the retail shop also overwhelmed the limited inventory inside. But with time, I believe more tables will fill with guests, and more shelves will fill with bottles. For now, Coll’s strict commitment to interesting, compelling wines and artisan spirits means he is only willing to carry so many labels. Quality over quantity.
In the interim, to foster an industry-friendly atmosphere, after 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and all day on Sunday, Coll will offer 60 bottles at retail prices in the restaurant. There will be limited amounts of each wine and the list will rotate by demand.
Coll’s location might ultimately prove to be an unexpected boon; just a block away is an audience ripe for such a place. Students of the IWC (International Wine Center), churning through weeks of beginner and up to diploma-level wine education classes, have long struggled to find a suitable spot for a drink in the evenings after class. It used to be a wasteland. I know because I was one of those students, or rather, disciples of wine.