Rhode Island Monthly Features City Wine and Tapas Bar, Cork

Small Wonder: Inventive small plates paired with a surprisingly cheap wine list make Cork Wine and Tapas Bar  (and New Bedford – who knew?) a must-try dining destination.
By Karen Deutsch

Source: South Coast Rail

If you want to build a city, look for liquid. Some of the Atlantic coast’s most engaging cities have been built (or rebuilt) not according to the most desirable land plots but in proximity to water. Check out Baltimore, Portland, even Providence, and the relationship between commercial enterprise and a water view is clear. But while Providence’s revival centers on the convergence of three rivers, New Bedford has followed Portland’s template, developing its own bustling downtown retail district in the wake of the country’s number one fishing port. Turns out, 200-year-old cobblestone streets no longer signal rudimentary transportation but, rather, the rebirth of a modern metropolis.
90 Front Street is one of the most formidable buildings in this retail klatch, a four-story structure of mammoth British-style stones and heavy wooden beams that was restored five years ago by Waterfront Historic Area League board member Peter DeWalt. DeWalt eventually hooked up with Richard Cardoza, owner of a seventy-five-year-old eponymous chain of wine stores, marrying an enviable location with an endless supply of drinks. Add a younger Cardoza (Chef Nick), a menu of Spanish-style small plates, and Cork Wine and Tapas Bar was born.
The early nineteenth-century design dominates though it’s been touched by a modern hand. Dual bars sit upstairs and down, the latter serving a leather upholstered lounge. The warm, wood-floored dining room isn’t a large space but a well-utilized one, with seating for nearly forty and an additional ten-top tapas table. The aesthetic, substantive stone walls with bright accents celebrates New Bedford’s history but allows for contemporary conversation among the wine-lined walls. And wine, of course, is the foundation of this venture. Ties to wine distributors have resulted in a comprehensive but shockingly affordable wine list. Most bottles come in around $40, but almost two dozen are under $25. The less expensive varieties don’t have specified vintages and the $21 Hogue riesling tastes like melted candy, but the option is comforting if you like to start with dessert.
The menu is fundamentally true to Spanish tradition, both in the style of cooking and the breadth of seafood that comes not from the Mediterranean but directly across the street. The most expensive tapas dish is an obligatory $14 lobster crostini, three thick slabs of grilled olive-oil soaked bread topped with an enviable citrus-laced lobster salad and piquant roasted tomato. Even better are the knuckle-sized translucent sea scallops topped with balsamic frisee and a crisped prosciutto chip. ($10 for five scallops. Unicorns may walk the cobblestone streets soon, too.) Peruvian-style shrimp ceviche ($9) is appropriately simple and so fresh the shrimp still needs time to flush under the citric acid.
Red wines get short shrift given the strength of the seafood, but stronger sauces allow for the bold flavors of both European and South American reds. Even an inviting gratin dish of white wine and garlic shrimp holds up well given its abundance of smoky paprika. So too with brava sauce (Spain’s elevated version of “Special Sauce”), which comes with deeply fried wedges of potato and a forgettable pair of lobster cakes. (Where did the lobster meat go? See “crostini” above.) A select few Asian-inspired tuna dishes: tartar, sesame-crusted and a delicate panko spring roll with yellow fin tuna also allow diners to play around with a spicy shiraz or Argentinean syrah.
Salads also stray from the Spanish theme: Caprese salad with vibrant heirloom tomatoes, arugula tossed with goat cheese, panzanella and grilled vegetables with mozzarella are certainly European but hail from farther east. But it’s a safe move in appealing to weekly diners who can only take so much Basque-style cooking. The dishes change every so often, but few restaurants want to abandon mainstream cuisine. Ironically, the only major misstep on the menu is an awkward attempt at American snack food. The sliced Philly cheese steak spring roll (“Steak Umms?” recoiled a companion) is served on top of a gelatinous cheese sauce that overtakes the delicate rice paper altogether.
And here valuable proximity to the water may be to blame. Everything that comes from a shell at Cork seems to taste better than land-dwelling animals. Maybe the latter has traveled too far. Spanish littlenecks with onions and peppers are delicioso; empanadas, surprisingly, desabrido. Traditional paella del mar ($36 and, far from the tapas concept, capable of feeding California) is saffron-scented and savory, with just enough broth to sauce the mussels and clams. Tierra paella, with chicken, pork and beef tenderloin, is made with red wine instead of white, which makes for a rich rice, but the dish loses some of the grace and complexity that makes it a perennial favorite. There are a handful of entree-sized meat dishes grilled rack of lamb and rib-eye steak among them but they require a deliberate desire not to graze. The menu relies mainly on the six-bite dish and rightfully so: They’re artfully presented and expertly cooked.
Desserts, like the space itself, do manage to walk the line between classic and contemporary. Cannoli are stuffed with a bright orange mascarpone while crunchy Fuji apples pair nicely with a thin spring roll shell and vanilla ice cream. Even a Nutella and dulce de leche crepe is worth the effort, despite the fact that one looks like a dog eating peanut butter. It’s worth mentioning that Cork’s liquid dessert options are affordable alternatives to pricey Sauternes. Where else can you get a $5 glass of moscato? It tastes quite fine if you’ve worked your way through a sampling of dry wines during dinner, though a sober palate may be a bit more discriminating.
There may be many more glasses of wine to come. Cork is a tough place to leave. It’s not necessarily the concept; there are quite a few small plate themed places in the Northeast. But this one popped up in a compelling area that supplies an impressive inventory of fish served in an equally remarkable edifice. So while other restaurateurs may have their sights on the remarkable, the novel, the next wave in post-modern dining, DeWalt and the Cardozas stumbled on something more valuable: a standby, where diners will spend their evenings not once a year but once a week. And though the highway might separate the harbor from the high-end rent, it’s also going to bring in all the diners who fall somewhere between Buffalo wings and Boston’s best.
Cork Wine and Tapas Bar  (very good)
90 Front Street, New Bedford, (508) 994-9463, corkwineandtapas.com. Open from 3p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (full menu starting at 5p.m.), limited menu on Tuesdays, closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible, though the cobblestone streets may be tough to navigate. Street and valet parking. Cuisine Spanish-style tapas with a few international additions. Capacity Seventy-five. Vibe Philip V of Spain hosts a house party at B. Franklin’s. Prices Small plates $10-$15, entrees $15-$38, desserts $5-$7. Karen’s picks New Bedford’s best: shellfish of almost any variety, in paella or on its own.
This article appears in the October 2009 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.
Source URL: http://www.rimonthly.com/Rhode-Island-Monthly/October-2009/Small-Wonder/

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