From outside, Wine Depot & Bistro 555 appears to be a windowless, rectangular concrete block. It is located at Jefferson Avenue and Sixth Street, one of the seedier intersections in South Beach. You enter through one of two black wrought-iron gates — the one on Sixth leads indoors; another around the corner opens to a 40-seat outdoor patio. A wood deck with foliage and fencing provides cover from the sidewalk. There were hardly any customers inside during our initial visit not long after 555 opened last October. And I haven't noticed patrons going in or out during the numerous times I've passed by since then.
So we ambled in around 8 p.m. on a recent Friday with no reservations and — yikes! — the 58-seat bistro was so boisterous I assumed it had been booked for a private party — maybe the Rambunctious & Mostly European Wine Lovers Convention. According to the host, however, this was just a typical weekend crowd; there was no seating available, indoors or out. Our only option was to wait for a couple of the 18 high chairs surrounding a U-shaped, stainless-steel-topped bar.
Time flew by as we scoped out some of the 400-plus modestly priced still and sparkling wines in the market space ($7 to mid-$30 range). The perimeter features French selections; inner aisles are arranged according to origin (California, Argentina, Italy, and so forth). Most diners select a bottle from the shop to enjoy with their meal; a waiter or the depot manager/sommelier takes it to the table and pours. The corkage fee is $7.50 for wines up to $30, and $15 for those plucked from a glass-enclosed "vintage room" in the rear of the space (which features an 18-seat woodblock table, the better champagnes, and wines starting at $35).
No wall divides depot and bistro, so the lofty, industrial-style room has retained some of its original warehouse ambiance. The restaurant portion, which takes up the center of the room, comprises mostly high tables with marble tops and wine barrel bases; plush sofa seating surrounds a few low-tops. White walls are aptly adorned with blown-up photos of wines splashing into glasses.
The menu is splashed with informal bistro fare and Mediterranean-inspired small plates: croque-monsieur, crostini with toppings, and sandwiches on baguettes ($8 to $9); charcuterie platters in four sizes ($12 to $20); cheese plates with walnuts and grapes ($10, $13, $16, according to portion); a trio of cold salmon treatments (gravlax, Norwegian smoked, and tartare with mango and creamy citrus sauce, $11); foie gras in terrine or au torchon ($14); pâté, mousse, and rillette ($9 to $11); four salads ($12); and tapas that traipse the Med via bites such as Merguez sausages, marinated anchovies, and pan con tomate y Serrano ($6 to $13) — as well as the imported delicacy of pata negra ham ($28, the priciest menu item). A nightly list of special small plates and a few main courses is posted in tabletop tents and on a blackboard to the right of the bar.
Slices of country bread with flour-dusted crust are brought to each table; try not to eat too much because it will go well with just about any food you're likely to order. That includes the charcuterie plate of prosciutto, chorizo, garlic sausage, French cured salamis (including Rosette de Lyon), Brie, cornichons, and sweet onion jam. A "beef and duck" medley brings the same cheese and garnishes as above, but the meats are thinly sliced bresaola, moist and meaty shingles of smoked duck breast, a typically fatty and fabulous duck rillette, and a coarse, liver-potent pâté. Smoked chicken breast is also advertised, but there was none the night we ordered it, so the kitchen crew doubled up on the duck.
Salads are crisply fresh and defined by contrasting tastes and textures. The "Bistro" boasts warm crottin de chavignol cheese with candied pearl onions and roasted tomatoes. The "Biarritz" drapes lush slices of house-cured salmon gravlax over baby spinach leaves, warmed potato disks, crumbled goat cheese, and a creamy shallot dressing with a mild mustard tang ($12).
I craved sweetbreads chimichurri, but 555 had eighty-sixed them. Tops among the consoling alternatives was octopus Provençal: small, warm slices of tender tentacle entangled with tomatoes, olives, fennel, and papery circles of eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash, all marinated in olive oil, garlic, and herbs.
A dozen medium-size shrimp sautéed in a saffron beurre blanc likewise pleased, mostly by way of the sweet, satiny butter sauce. Vegetable tartare was described as a molded mince of zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, and tomatoes. Only the first two ingredients made it into the mix, but they were dressed in a lively vinaigrette; toasted croutons and a small thatch of greens provided a light, refreshing bite (one that should especially appeal to vegetarians).
I asked our waiter what was in the gazpacho; nowadays variations on the traditional are quite common, and there was no menu description. "I have no idea," he matter-of-factly replied. It turned out to be pastel pink, smoothly textured, and drizzled with olive oil — a zesty purée brightly balanced between tomato and cucumber. Although we asked to share, only one spoon was brought; we requested another that never arrived. A couple of servers displayed less-than-congenial attitudes, but most were hospitable and efficient.
A few nightly specials were more problematic. On one occasion, somebody in the kitchen exhibited too heavy a hand with salt. It marred an otherwise flavorful veal stroganoff, accompanied by rice and a small clump of salty salad ($14). Roast quail was juicy, but mushrooms in demi-glace served alongside were oversalted; haricots verts bathed in delicious truffle butter also shared the plate ($15). Corvina came capped with a luscious, creamy leek sauce that made me miss butter-rich Old World cooking.
Some desserts are prepared in-house; others are brought in. We favored the former, especially a fig tart blackboard special whose namesake fruit came baked on a buttery circle of tender pastry. A rectangle of lemon tart with very lemony curd hit the spot; a similarly shaped chocolate crunch bar was lightly textured but tendered only a tepid cocoa intensity.
Perhaps 555's biggest selling point is the free parking lot on the side — something of a South Beach miracle. It's also just far enough away from the touristy area of the neighborhood that it is well priced and geared toward locals, who seem to be appreciating the value and having a heck of a time doing so. You might consider joining the party one night.