photo credit: Flynn McGarry
Most places either feel like bars (where you can also maybe eat) or restaurants (where you can also maybe drink). Gem Wine, around the corner from its sister restaurant Gem on the Lower East Side, is that rare, perfect middle ground. This neighborhood spot has unique dishes that you won’t find at any other wine bar, and it’s one of the best places to have a date with someone you just met while pretending to go for a run on the West Side.
The focus here is on wine, but the food is far from an afterthought. Although the menu changes often, they seem to always have two simple but satisfying small plates: warm bread with salted butter and semi-soft aarewasser cheese with fruit preserve. If things go well with your date and you suddenly find yourselves in need of a real dinner, get something larger like the hearty white beans with big chunks of confit albacore or the hot, crispy soft shell crabs on top of a cool arugula sauce. No matter what you order, it’ll be a well-thought-out, refined dish—which is impressive, given their kitchen is smaller than yours (unless you happen to live in an RV).
In terms of wine (the only alcohol available), the selection revolves around natural producers, so expect some funky options like an effervescent bottle we had from the Southern Rhône made from both red and white wine grapes (cinsault and clariette). You can peruse all their bottles on the wall, but if nothing jumps out, you'll have to discuss what you’re looking for with your server—because there’s no wine list. If you avoid whole bottles due to your commitment issues, there are also a handful of wines by the glass for $15 each.
Gem Wine is only open Monday through Friday, and most of the seating is at small communal tables that are arranged in a way that makes you feel like you’re in an intimate library reading room. But it never feels too crowded here, which means it’s an ideal setting to try some interesting food and low-intervention wine on that first date that now needs to go perfectly since you already have one strike against you for lying about being a runner.
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Note: The menu changes often, so the dishes below may not be available when you visit. Also, Gem (the restaurant) serves a mostly-vegetarian $40 prix-fixe lunch every Saturday and Sunday here from 12-2pm.
Bread And Butter
This small plate has two very thick slices of crusty bread that always taste like they came out of the oven within the last hour. The butter, sprinkled with salt, arrives on your table a little hard, so order this as soon as you step in the door to give that butter a few minutes to soften.
You’ll be drinking wine, and charcuterie goes well with wine. So get some coppa.
There’s usually also a gouda on the menu, but we prefer this aarewasser from Switzerland, which comes with a side of fruit preserve. (We got a berry compote last time.) It’s a thin slice of semi-soft cheese that has some subtle funk. The more you eat it, the more you’ll like it, and you’ll write down “aarewasser” in your Notes app so you can hunt for it the next time you’re at your favorite cheese shop.
This dish comes with a ton of warm, tender mussels (out of their shells) that are drowning in a tart sauce made with koji, butter, and lemon. Chopped, charred asparagus and ramps are also thrown in. The mussels are plump and smoky, and there’s a lot of sauce, so make sure you have bread.
You can always just order white beans mixed with spring onions, miso, and tonnato sauce. But adding the optional confit albacore makes this dish much better. The tuna tastes like what you’d get in a Chicken of the Sea can if they charged $20 instead of $2.
Fried Soft Shell Crab
The fried batter is crackly and salty, and the crabs are placed on a bed of purslane with an arugula purée that looks like guacamole. Soft shell crabs are in season during late spring and summer. What we’re saying is: Come here during late spring or summer.
You’ll see the creamy oyster emulsion used in this dish elsewhere (with chunks of cold cucumbers, for example), but it works best with raw lamb.
Pomelo With Bottarga
This small plate is more thought-provoking than outright enjoyable. It comes with segments of pomelo and deep-fried ají dulce peppers with shaved bottarga on top. Similar to the feeling you get when you stare at a painting at the MoMA for a long time, you won’t know for sure if you like this dish at first, and you might keep thinking about it for a few hours (or days) before you decide. We’re into it—but we might change our minds tomorrow.