Lately it seems you can't walk a block without passing a cozy nook filled with (mostly) women drinking wine over small plates of cheeses and olives. It makes you wonder what we did for girls' nights out before wine bars took the city by storm. So how does a proprietor of one of these joints distinguish herself or himself from the guys down the street?
In the case of Secco's Julia Battaglini, the answer lies in great instincts: for food, wine, business and most importantly, staffing. When Battaglini's Carytown wine and gourmet shop, River City Cellars, was struggling a few years back, small business advisers recommended that, rather than downsizing, the thing to do was expand. “Put it in a glass,” they said. After two years of red tape, she finally did just that with the opening of Secco in May.
Secco means dry in Italian, as in a description for wine, but the vibe in the narrow spot at the corner of Cary and Sheppard is just the opposite — chummy, cheerful, and, on most nights, packed to the gills. And with good reason. Yes, the space is well-designed, with a custom cork-topped bar, sleek (but uncomfortable) bar stools, a Chris Milk mural on the wall and an inviting loungelike area at the front. Yes, the staff is accommodating and knowledgeable, steering you in the right directions. And yes, the list of wines by the glass is extensive and reasonably priced.
Battaglini's best management decision, though, was hiring chef Tim Bereika. What comes out of the tiny kitchen reflects Bereika's impressive training and experience, but also an obvious dedication to fine ingredients and inventive methods and flavors. There are no entree-sized portions on the menu, but the reasonable prices ($5-$12) allow you to put together a satisfying meal from the selection of antipastos, small plates and cured meats and cheeses. Believe me, you'll want to try as many dishes as possible.
On a recent Wednesday night, after securing the last two open bar stools, we order a few starters and ask the bartender for a wine recommendation. The Les Chiens-Chiens chinon, a French cabernet franc not on the wine list, turns out to be an excellent pairing with the much-raved-about grilled octopus, which has a kicky, if undersalted, harissa rub and gets delicious assistance from a chunky guacamole and pickled onions. The chilled cucumber soup isn't perfectly balanced, but with domestic caviar and lemon balm in the mix, is still a good bet. While a spread made of salt cod may be a hard sell for some, take my word for it and order the baccalA mantecato crostini.
Both the hanger steak and the halibut are masterfully prepared. The tender ovals of steak are wrapped in speck and accompanied by shavings of seasonal vegetables and truffles. The almond-crusted hunk of fish is worthy of all its labor-intensive accoutrements — parsley sauce, sweet corn cream and a lovely globe of charred cantaloupe. Perched on top of it all is what looks and sort of tastes like a curled breadstick, but turns out to be a part of the halibut, rolled into a skinny snake and fried.
One upside to a meal of small plates is that there's always room for dessert. The Meyer lemon semifreddo is marshmallowlike and refreshing but wants a bit more zing. The bread pudding with caramel and sea salt would be the perfect ending to the meal if it came with a little vanilla ice cream.
At lunch, a mere $10 entitles you to a fixed-price menu of mixed greens, your choice of pork confit bocadillo or apple and fontina panino, and either bread pudding or white chocolate bark with candied olives. It may sound like a Latin dance step, but a bocadillo is actually a type of Spanish sandwich. In this case, it's made up of luscious, drippy chunks of pork, kumquat preserves (just a tad more, please) and blue cheese, all on a soft roll similar to ciabatta.
The white chocolate bark is the only misstep in my adventures. I'm all for unusual combinations of sweet and savory, but I can't imagine a dish in which black olives and white chocolate would be appetizing together.
Otherwise, Battaglini and her team at Secco seem to have found just the right formula.
2933 W. Cary St.