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Not so long ago, the notion of putting a wine bar at the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and NE 69th Street — one that sold something other than Mad Dog and the kind of fortified brake fluid that has to be hidden inside a brown paper bag — would have been about as sensible as opening an Uncle Fidel fan club on Calle Ocho. A pawn shop was more likely. Or a check-cashing store, rip-off minimart, or toxic waste dump.
That was then, and this is Wine 69.
It's a cozy and inviting space, despite its bleak strip mall location a couple of doors down from Michy's. On a drizzly weekend night, it's particularly appealing — large picture windows glowing with golden light; the room full of classy, substantial-looking wood furniture; an entire wall of wine bins brimming with bottles. Up close, the tones of cool jazz hover just beneath the thrum of traffic and the horn blasts of impatient dillweeds.
So let's see ... step inside and enjoy the relaxed ambiance, the soothing music, a glass of wine, and a bite to eat — or stand outside in the rain with the dillweeds.
Credit for such an easy choice goes to proprietor Ben Neji, who took a chance on the rapidly improving neighborhood six months ago to make his vinous dreams a reality. Credit him, too, for the 250-bottle wine list, less impressive for its size than for its affordability and thoughtfully considered eclecticism, and for an utter absence of cork dorkery, a welcome relief to a clientele that ranges from Cabernet-stained enophiles who know exactly what they're drinking to the barely initiated who need to have Riesling explained to them.
Wine 69's program makes it easy to experiment. Though the by-the-glass selection is (rather too) limited, eight "flights" of three wines each (from $17 to $20, and generously poured) offer the chance to explore everything from Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs to French reds and premium Old World wines. The menu is small and concentrates on salads, cheeses, charcuterie, and a handful of other easily prepared dishes.
The fun comes in putting food and flight together. The Chardonnay flight avoids those annoyingly ubiquitous overripe, over-oaked, over-everythinged bottles for a well-balanced wine from Sonoma's Sebastiani Vineyards, a Chardonnay redolent of roasted pears from the aptly named Decadence in the Napa Valley, and a bright, brassy, thoroughly captivating wine from Mont Gras in Chile's Colchagua Valley.
The Mont Gras in particular is partnered well with a simple Caprese salad — coins of fresh mozzarella and modestly ripe tomatoes striped with a nutty basil pesto and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The Decadence's unctuous fruit character played nicely against a fine four-cheese soufflé with a surprisingly light and creamy texture, as did a tart, bracing Medoc from the French flight's Château Rollan de By.
From the same group, the Château de Laussac Bordeaux helped rehabilitate a slow-braised lamb shank that, though tender and meaty, could have used more salt as well as more of its reduced braising liquid. More salt and longer cooking would have benefited its accompanying rosemary potatoes too. Sadly nothing could have saved a trio of tasteless crabcakes whose unpleasantly gooey texture suggested the entirely wrong ratio of binder to crustacean.
A rich, custardy white chocolate cake brought things around somewhat, and even if a prettily decorated fraiser cake (a Frenchified version of strawberry shortcake) tasted a bit past its prime, you have to applaud Neji's chutzpah.