Ruffian is a place that can be enjoyed on a lot of different levels.
On the surface, this tiny wine bar in the East Village is a bit of a sensory overload. The food is all cooked behind the bar in full view of everyone, which fills the narrow, 19-seat space with smells of toasting bread and frying bacon. This, coupled with a list of funky wines and some loud hip hop, is more than enough to keep you entertained if you’re just here to drink some wine without thinking too hard about it. And while you can certainly enjoy yourself having a drink and listening to Mobb Deep on the speakers, that’s only the first rung on the Ruffian ladder.
We’d recommend going at least a step further, by diving into the short food menu. There are usually about 10 items to choose from, most sized somewhere between an appetizer and an entree. You’ll find things like a corn soup with a curry base, and perfectly cooked octopus served over a rich, spicy mole - all of which are more interesting and delicious than you’d expect for a place whose kitchen basically consists of a guy behind the bar with a hot plate.
The next step is to explore more of the huge, natural-wine-focused wine list. The over 250 options are almost all from small producers in southern and eastern Europe, but unlike other natural wine-focused spots that require you to have taken a Great Courses Plus on offbeat varietals and appellations, Ruffian categorizes their wines with terms that are actually helpful (or at least entertaining). So rosés are split into “Beach Sipping” and “Stoop Sipping,” red wines have categories like “Rootsy” or “Kool-Aid,” and Champagnes get labels like “Central Park” or “Tompkins Park.” You can tell your server you want to try a red wine from the “Bloody” section of the menu, and they’ll ask if you want something straightforward or “funky as f*ck” before telling you both are great and offering tastes of each.
Beyond the descriptors on the menu, Ruffian generally offers a more creative way to think about wine. For example, on a recent visit, the bartender told us that for the next few weeks, their wines by-the-glass would only be from locations mentioned in stories from The Odyssey, which led to some questionable recall of 11th grade English class as well as a discussion about orange wines from the Peloponnese. This may be the last level to Ruffian - but we wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, we discovered something else. The best part about this place is that you’ll enjoy it whether you want to go that deep, or just hang at the bar while you drink and Shazam Big Pun songs.
If you usually just think of tartines as boring sandwiches missing half their bread, this one will change your mind. The thick whole wheat bread is topped with a ton of smoked ricotta, pistachios, and bacon. It’s a lot of food, and each bite tastes like taking a deep breath around a campfire, so we’d recommend sharing.
You could spend $24 a lot of different ways, like on 24 white t-shirts at a dollar store, so it’d be understandable to skip the $24 corn soup on the menu at a wine bar. And this isn’t an absolute must-order. But that’s not to say it isn’t very good - the curry, herbs, and little strips of corn combine to make it rich and a little spicy.
Carrots have no business tasting this good. They get a kick from their coating of spices and herbs, and they’re served over a thick, rich carrot puree that’s also better than any vegetable puree should be.
This dish of artichokes, chopped hazelnuts, and herbs has a lot going on, but overall, it feels overpriced. Go with the curried carrots instead.
Octopus is on pretty much every menu these days, and not many versions stand out from the crowd. But this one does. You’ll get one huge tentacle that’s charred on the outside and snaps when you cut into it, but is still tender. It’s served over a dark, spicy mole that you’ll wish was offered as a (very large) dish of its own.