For two years, the fate of the Wine Exchange was in near-constant flux.
To be fair, the restaurant's wildly shifting fortunes weren't the fault of owner Mark Smith. He, along with his employees and Wine Exchange habitués, were led on a dreary adventure during the final, glorious days of the real estate boom when the owners of Wine Exchange's former building -- the Wasserman Group -- decided to try and replace it with a towering condo or mixed-use something-or-another. There were promises of relocation and assistance for the beloved SoHo gathering spot, but time dragged on. Wine Exchange was forced to close and re-open its doors several times to the accompaniment of employee missives to the media and hefty neighborhood support.
Eventually, after a two-year struggle, it all turned out for the best. In March, Wine Exchange moved into a gorgeous new space at the heart of Hyde Park's still-in-progress Village.
Fundamentally, although slicker and slightly bigger than its former digs, Wine Exchange hasn't changed. There's still an exceptional wine-by-the-glass program, the beautiful SoHo clientele and similarly lackluster food. Great job on the first two, but I would have liked to see that last one go through an overhaul in the move.
The menu did change a bit, veering from the Med-inspired standards and Asian-oriented specials into a list of fare that's largely homogenous American fine dining: salmon, pork, flank steak and chicken; pizzas and pastas; salads and apps. Generic, both in print and on the plate.
It's hard to screw up seared ahi tuna ($11.95) with sesame seeds -- a dish so ubiquitous I'm not sure diners' taste buds can even register it anymore -- and Wine Exchange serves up a capable version. On one visit, the caramelized onions were candied bits of mush, on another strands of sweet-tart joy. But with spicy Thai hot sauce on the plate and sesame oil-dressed wakame seaweed, onions don't seem to fit. The tuna itself comes out cold from sesame to center, obviously seared earlier in the evening.
There are other food tics that don't seem to fit Wine Exchange's swanky atmosphere and wine-knowledgeable clientele. Each entrée comes with a blend of sautéed veggies and your choice of rice or a baked potato served with individually wrapped butter -- as if you'd accidentally wandered into Bushwood Country Club circa 1979. It's a bit jarring to unwrap a pat of Land-O-Lakes after downing a gulp of fragrant Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc ($9) from Alsace.
The flank steak ($16.95) is tasty enough, although one night it's coated in the promised chile rub and cooked two steps past the medium-rare ordered; on another, there's little chile, but it's perfectly pink. Pecan-crusted tilapia ($16.95) is a lump of bland on a plate. The fish is baked, which doesn't do a thing to add flavor to either the tasteless crust of sandy nuts and cornmeal or the naturally featureless tilapia. Roast pork ($18.95) looks pretty, but there's nary a grain of salt or mustard glaze on the whole loin, and the sauce of sautéed nectarines manages to contribute little more than a texture of grainy, under-ripe fruit.
Appetizers are a better option overall, although they can be held back by poor choices in the kitchen. Why sauté breaded shrimp only to dump them into a soupy bowl of sauce ($10.95)? The combination of lime, crystallized ginger and earthy tequila is sharp enough, but that breading turns into gooey strands that sometimes cling to the shrimp and sometimes just float around the broth like tiny, sodden dumplings.
I love the thick, dense potato pancakes ($7.95) that come with a crisp crust drizzled with crème fraiche -- and the homemade, chunky, cinnamon apple sauce on the side might be the best thing on the menu. The crab stacker ($11.95) is a relic of the old menu, the seafood just as fresh and bright with avocado and spicy sriracha as it always has been.
But then there's the star of the Wine Exchange show, about 40 selections of by-the-glass wine that range from inexpensive Spanish Albarino to high-end Cali Cab. None of the selections are dogs, and you'll see gems on the list not found at even the most wine-centric restaurants: like the decadent dry sparkling Syrah ($9) from Jed Steele's Shooting Star winery in California, one of the least known and most surprisingly tasty wines on the market. Prices are competitive, with the vast majority of the glasses coming in at $10 or under. The Wine Exchange has the trappings nailed, from hefty but nicely shaped glasses to good serving temperatures for the reds.
And the new location's atmosphere is much better than the old spot's. The interior is a thin slice of storefront, with room for a row of tables and a long bar, the space decked out in natural brick and shades of earthy greens with floor-to-ceiling windows. Pretty, but the big lure in another couple of months will be the extensive patio out back. Sure, there's no view except the Village's overwhelmingly bricked surfaces, and you might get ogled by the condo balconies overlooking the courtyard, but drinking good wine in the urban outdoors is a joy.
As a package, Wine Exchange is worth the visit for the wine and scene, but it should be so much better. With even a little effort -- perhaps a smaller, more focused menu or more attention in the kitchen -- the food could add to the experience instead of merely providing mediocre fodder to absorb the alcohol.
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