Reserve

(Grand Rapids, MI) We love wine and there are few establishments in town that specifically make wine their prime focus...and we blackballed the most well-known wine bar in downtown Grand Rapids years ago, after a particularly horrible experience with a server and a manager. So, when we heard about the new Reserve wine bar, we were suitably excited. We met our good friends and fellow foodies, JoJo and Ivy, for what we hoped would be a new favorite place...



He Fed:
The first thing I notice about Reserve is how bright and airy it is. White is the predominant color, with some unique Asian influence in the light fixtures, with a somehow rustic Michigan feel. The centerpiece is Ran Ortner's Open Water #24 Grand Rapids 2009 Art Prize winner, set against the back wall over the wine taps. To the right is the charcuterie station and upstairs is additional seating. Juliet and I arrive early, claim our OpenTable.com reservation, and are seated at the booth directly inside the entry. That turns out less than ideal; when our dinner companions join, their seats are in direct flow of the air vents above! I can totally empathize with the restaurant for trying to fill these seats, but they really must do something about the blasting air (or heat) directly on customers. Put a baffle or something on the vents.

Thankfully, because we had arrived so early on a Saturday evening, there is a booth upstairs that turns out to be much more comfortable. I walk around, taking in the lay of the land, and am delighted to discover more seating in a swankier kind of lounge area that seems quieter and more private than the boisterous downstairs section. Just behind our booth there is also a door leading to an outdoors deck area with an herb garden growing on the wall and some comfortable seating. When it gets warmer (we're still due for an Indian Summer, right?) I'm definitely heading straight from work to a seat outdoors.

I begin with a glass of the Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco while we peruse the charcuterie and cheese menu. We select 5 for $26. The Speck from Iowa is my favorite, the lightly smoked ham so delicate yet full of flavor. Surpisingly, I actually like the housemade chicken liver and foie gras pate with morel mushroom gelee, spreading it on a slice of whole grain bread from Nantucket Bakery. The Burrata from California is also a creamy delight, while the Roquefort (France) and Midnight Moon (California) are best sampled in modicum.

As we are often wont to do, the multi-course charcuterie leads to a multi-course small plates extravaganza. I am already focused on the Agnolotti filled with goat cheese in a pumpkin broth. I love pasta and I love pumpkin-flavored dishes (or drinks) as long as they are done with a light touch. Well, the agnolotti is too light a touch! Some of the pasta doesn't even seem to have cheese in it, so I'm left chewing a too-toothsome bit of pasta that tastes slightly undercooked. To be fair, when I do get some nice bits with cheese in them, and after the pasta steeps a bit in the broth, I can taste what the chef is aiming for.

We share plates, and I am a little bit blown away by JoJo's Spinach and Egg Risotto, topped with a sweet pepper remoulade that gives the creamy richness of the egg and Reggiano a nice kick. I also try a bit of Ivy's smoked wild Alaskan salmon that shows me another facet of fish I didn't know existed. It's not salty, nor fishy, and fills my mouth with smoky succulence not unlike that of the Speck. Sadly, I do not have the guts to try Juliet's oysters. (I do return to Reserve a week later to share the Manila Clams with a friend, and they are spectacular...a good first experience with clams.)

The parade of dishes (including salads and more bread) and wines (including a French Malbec) eventually overpowers me. I can only drift on, picking up random forkfuls of what's left on the plates.

It goes without saying that this is my new favorite "of the moment" restaurant, and the first place I will think of when yearning for a glass of good wine. Even now, I can imagine popping in for a quick bite at the charcuterie station and sipping a 4 year old Cotes du Rhone.
She Fed:
I've heard a lot of buzz about Reserve and am looking forward to a night of wine, cheese, charcuterie, and playing catch up with our friends, whom we haven't seen in ages. The hostess seats us at a table right at the entrance. As soon as JoJo and Ivy arrive, the air conditioning kicks on and it's blowing directly on us. When we ask for the air to be turned down, our server explains "Our system is smart and we can't turn it down". Doesn't seem very smart to us so we ask to be moved, which clearly disappoints our server. She seems unsure of how to handle our request. In fact throughout the evening, most of our servers seem uncomfortable in their roles. Either this is their first restaurant job, or they are still getting used to their new surroundings.

After a few minutes of discussion with two hostesses who seem flustered, we are escorted upstairs to one of only two booths in the entire restaurant. It's much quieter and the air is not blaring—perfect! We are given three menus, one for cheeses and charcuterie (priced at $7 per selection, 3 for $15 or 5 for $26), one for small plates. and one for wines and beers.

We start with three cheeses: a Michigan chevre, a California burrata and a Michigan vino tomme; an order of speck from Iowa (yes, Iowa); and the chicken liver and foie gras pate with morel mushroom gelee which is housemade by hand. Our choices are served with a variety of condiments—chutney, honey, multigrain bread, flatbreads, etc. As you might know, I'm kind of obsessed with foie gras and after one bite, I am in love with Reserve. This is one of the best foie terrines I've ever had. Who would have guessed little old Grand Rapids could compete with charcuterie made in Sonoma, Las Vegas, Manhattan, Rome or Paris? The speck is quite lovely too with its salty richness and I'm secretly thrilled that Iowa is turning out world-class speck. How cool is that?

The cheeses are all delicious and flavorful, but for me the burrata is the star. I've had it warm on flatbread at a friend's house, but here it's chilled and resembles a ball of fresh mozzarella. The burrata has a soft thin skin and inside is creamy, rich and much more flavorful than mozzarella. It's slightly "bloomy" but not as ripe and sweaty as say a tellagio.

We move on to small plates and order several to share: Oysters on the half shell; burrata with roasted peppers and a sherry vinaigrette; smoked fish trio; risotto with a poached egg; cauliflower soup; endive salad with pancetta, poached egg and truffle vinaigrette; chevre agnolotti; and two more cheeses, Hooligan (a washed rind cow's milk) and Midnight Moon (aged California goat's milk). The conviviality begins, with each of us trying a little bit of everything...except no one wants to try my oysters and JoJo, our resident vegetarian, steers clear of meat dishes. There isn't a bad dish on the table, although Jeremy's agnolotti are a bit too "doughy" for me.

The original architectural bones of the building have been kept intact and the decor is truly fabulous. High ceilings, light colors, clean lines and a theme of circles run throughout. I am told the restaurant was built around the 2009 ArtPrize winner, a large landscape of (presumably) Lake Michigan which hangs right above the bar.

The sheer number of wines by the glass, the variety of cheeses and the housemade charcuterie make Reserve a clear winner. The fact that Reserve is closed on Sundays is a major disappointment. I would be thrilled to have a place to go on Sunday afternoons for a solid glass of wine and some good cheese. (Come on Reserve, show how innovative you really can be by having some limited Sunday hours!)
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