Belly Wine Bar

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When I think of a wine bar, I envision something dark, stuffy, and deadly serious. A very fru fru bar, maybe in a hotel, with servers dressed to the nines and displaying a thinly veiled air of condescension. I see lush burgundy rugs, table lamps, maybe leather sofas and fancy cocktail tables. It would probably have a French name, like Vin Cache. Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, born out of how infrequently I find myself in wine bars. But let’s face it – wine is sophisticated. If a bar devotes itself to wine, I’d expect something very polished. A small plate of grandiloquence and a full carafe of pretension.

But when a wine bar decides to call itself “Belly,” assumptions are best left at the door.

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“We wanted it to be playful,” said the bartender, of the unusual moniker. “Like the wine list, which is kind of out there.”

Wait – a wine bar wants to be playful? Not highfalutin? And what’s with an off-the-wall wine list – can’t I just come in and order a glass of Merlot?

I imagine you could. Belly has something on the order of 120 wines, so I’m sure they can accommodate your blandness if you insist. But at a bar that strives to be anything other than ordinary, why would you yearn for dullness?

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From the people who brought you the Blue Room (right next door) and Central Bottle (just down the street), Belly Wine Bar opened this week in Kendall Square and is everything you wouldn’t expect a wine bar to be. Forget dark and staid. Belly is a bright room that balances a funky, modern look with a casual, laid-back feel. Of all things, what you’ll probably notice first is the wild black-and-white pattern of the tiled floor.

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Hand-painted by an Italian company that had never before shipped an order to the United States, the tiles would be an assault on the eyes if not offset by a plain, dark brown ceiling with wooden beams, and complemented by the warm, white and light-green color scheme. Cool stonework and exposed brick on the walls contribute to a comfortable, earthy atmosphere.

If the wine bar I envisioned earlier was akin to a fancy den, Belly feels more like a kitchen – it’s small, and in addition to the warmth and brightness, a long, rectangular table with 10 chairs occupies the center of the room, with three smaller tables and few round ones on the far wall.

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A table in the back artfully displays the cheeses that any good wine bar would offer. The bar itself is square with nine seats and an elegant, white marble top.

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I stopped in on Belly’s opening night at about 5:30 and again the night after. Opening night started off quietly – just one or two customers and me. But you could tell it was something special; I felt like I was sharing in a culminating moment that followed untold hours of preparation and anticipation. I got to meet the owner, Nick, who runs Belly with his wife, Liz. He’s a very nice guy whose enthusiasm was as obvious as it was contagious – there was almost an unbridled glee among the employees. No fancy waiters in dark suits here. Just some casual people who are pretty excited about opening a wine bar.

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The quiet start gave me a chance to talk to the bartender, Fanny, a veteran mixologist and oenophile who was only too happy to expound upon Belly’s wines, cocktails, food, philosophy, and pretty much anything else I asked about. And it’s a good thing, too, because I opened the menu and barely knew where to start. Belly’s menu consists of wine, cheese, salumi, charcuterie, and words that are hard to pronounce. The wines are organized not only by color but under offbeat headings like “Rocks in Your Mouth” and “Size Matters.”

Now I love wine, but I’m no connoisseur, so I asked Fanny to suggest something. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she opened with a curveball – “Do you want red, white, or orange?”

Orange? Dude, we’re talking about wine, not Crush soda.

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Sure enough, Belly offers a selection of “orange” wines. I learned that orange wines are dry wines made from white wine grape varieties that have spent some time soaking in the grape skins, giving the wine an orange hue and contributing more tannins. The result is a white wine with a bit of red wine character – or, as Fanny said, “white wine for red wine lovers.” Fortunately, I love both. She suggested a Radikon “Slatnick,” 2009; and sure enough, it did almost taste like a white/red hybrid. More body than I’d expect from a white, but less bite than a red.

Accompanying my wine was a small dish of taralli – traditional Italian wine biscuits. Fanny told me they’re prepared similarly to bagels (boiled before baked), which makes them light, buttery, and highly addictive. They made for good munching while I pondered my next wine.

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After my orange wine, it was time for some red. Again relying on Fanny’s good judgment, I got a Joseph Drouhin Brouilly. It was a big tasting wine, with shades of raspberry and blackberry. I also detected the unmistakable hints of a wine buzz.

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Now what would wine be without cheese? (Honestly, I’d have to say it’s pretty good even on its own, but I digress.) From what I’m told, the cheeses are curated by the cheesemonger at Central Bottle to match the wines. The eight cheese varieties are not listed by name, but by “character,” with options like “Fresh,” “Earth,” “the Blues,” and “Funk.”

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Bring on the funk!

In this case, “funk” was a whole milk cow cheese from Connecticut. It was delightfully sharp and perfectly complemented by fresh raw honey, fruity jam, and two types of crostini – one savory, one sweet.

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With red and orange under my belt, it was high time for a white. Fanny asked if I wanted something clean and crisp – qualities one would normally associate with a white wine – or something funky. I’d already gone the funky route with the cheese, and I figured there was no turning back. So I funked it up with Montlouis Sur Loire, Weisskopf “Le Rocher des Violettes,” 2009. I liked it; definitely an unusual flavor and mouthfeel for a white. In place of the oaky flavor you might expect was a certain minerality…which I guess is why it fell under the heading “Rocks in Your Mouth.”

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Now if Belly’s wine options strike you as a little unorthodox, wait until you see their food menu. You can choose from “snacks” like blanquette of rabbit offal (oh hoo hoooo! nice try, but I learned my lesson after the haggis incident, thank you very much), marrow bones, and pate de campagne, to name a few. The “salumi” section offers morcilla fresca, duck breast, and soprasetta, among others. And there’s “charcuterie” like rabbit rillettes and foie gras terrine.

I started with a snack, a word that does little justice to what I chose – lamb bacon and eggs.

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Ever seen bacon and eggs look like that? I didn’t think so. Made from lamb meat and topped with shaved egg yolks, the bacon was crispy, light, and delicious. A red wine would seem to be the best match here, but I was surprised by how much the white I was drinking brought out the flavor.

Admittedly, beyond duck breast and foie gras, I wasn’t all too familiar with the rest of the menu. So I again turned to Fanny (hey, at least I picked out the snack on my own), who suggested something from the charcuterie menu…

Head cheese.

The term alone sounds pretty gross, even if you don’t know what head cheese is. It quickly goes from gross to disgusting once you find out.

Despite what any logical person may deduce from the name, head cheese is not actually cheese. That’s a rather unnerving bit of trivia, is it not? Because let’s face it – when you use the word “cheese” to describe something that is not in fact cheese, you’re usually not talking about something good.

No, head cheese is jellied meat made from the head of a pig or cow. Oh, but it may also contain parts of the animal’s tongue, heart, or feet, so you might get a little variety. (I could explain this in further detail, but I’m afraid you’d stop reading.) Fanny acknowledged “there’s definitely several different textures going on in there,” but reassured me that “it’s not brains or anything.” Yeah, there’s a ringing endorsement.

I’d like to pause here and raise my glass, a bit wistfully, to the good old days of, say, a few months ago, when the raison d’être of this blog was highlighting the better qualities of a given bar and saying a few words about whatever beer and cocktails I had when I was there. I’m now in my third consecutive week of trying meats that society has by and large rejected. I wonder if, somewhere along the line, I got off track. Eating tripe, haggis, and head cheese isn’t winning me any awards or even garnering me any praise. No, all I get is people sucking in their breath, shivering, and scrunching up their faces like an audience watching an incredibly gory slasher film. I suppose it’s a good thing I derive such a deep sense of satisfaction from that reaction; otherwise I might have to get back to basics.

But enough with the melodrama. The head cheese was, believe it or not, really good!

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The exterior was crispy, and as advertised, the meat inside had a varied texture. It was served with crostini and a small bowl of mustard and vegetables, and the flavor reminded me of pork belly.

Of my three recent adventurous meat orders, this is the only one I’d look forward to getting again (the tripe at Tres Gatos would be second, as long as I was splitting it with someone; the haggis would be a very distant third).

Anyway, while awaiting the arrival of the head cheese, I figured I needed a little liquid insurance in case it was as bad as it sounded. Aware that Fanny’s cocktail knowledge probably exceeded even her wine smarts – after all, she personally designed Belly’s cocktail list – I told her I was a Manhattan fan and was looking for something in that neighborhood. She recommended the Vieux Carré, a classic cocktail that originated in New Orleans. Belly’s recipe was traditional and faithful – Old Overholt rye whiskey, Pierre Ferrand Ambre cognac, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Bénédictine, Peychaud's bitters, and Angostura bitters.

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Outstanding. This wasn’t the first Vieux Carré I’ve ever had, but it was without question the best. Each sip was packed with flavor, yet it had a very simple, smooth finish.

Belly’s list of specialty cocktails is small but, like everything else here, creative and playful. I couldn’t resist ordering the Silver Bullet. No, not that Silver Bullet. Belly’s Silver Bullet is a simple mix of gin, Kummel, fresh lemon juice, and perfectly crushed ice.

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For so few ingredients, this was intensely flavorful, which was probably the result of the Kummel. I’d never encountered this liqueur before; its caraway/cumin flavor gave the Silver Bullet a truly unique character. It was almost like a very sophisticated lemonade that you had to drink slowly. Very slowly.

Things were picking up when I was leaving, and there was a bigger crowd when I stopped in on the following night. As can be expected of any newly opened bar or restaurant with an unorthodox menu, I saw customers walk in with a sense of quiet curiosity and maybe even hesitation. But on both nights, I noticed that tentativeness gradually giving way to the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses.

Again – not what I’d expect of a wine bar.

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Last Call

Belly aims to be unusual, but it does so with a natural grace. From the décor to the wine to the charcuterie, everything here is deliberate – but none of it feels contrived.

It’s rare that I sit at a bar and rely solely on the bartender’s food and drink suggestions, but I felt completely comfortable doing so. And Fanny, with a genuine enthusiasm for her craft, seemed more than willing to impart her knowledge. I doubt Belly will ever be as quiet as it was in those first few hours, so maybe I won’t get a chance to do that again; but I feel fortunate to have had the experience.

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Belly isn’t cheap, but if you’re going out for an evening of wine and fancy cheeses, you probably weren’t planning on an inexpensive night anyway. The wines vary in price, but you have the option of a two-ounce pour or a five-ounce. The smaller pours range from $3.50 to $14, and most are $5 or $6. The full pours I got were $9, but again, that’s highly variable depending on your selection. The cocktails were $11 apiece, which is fairly typical for drinks of that sort. The snacks, salumi, and charcuterie are anywhere from $5 to $14, so if you are watching your wallet, you’ve got some flexibility.

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Belly is an invitation to adventure, and only a fool would decline. If you’re a wine lover, you’ll probably revel in the unconventional offerings. If you’re more of a casual wine drinker, you’ll likely come out knowing a lot more about wine than you did when you went in. And if you know nothing about wine, or if the food is wholly unfamiliar, then it’s an opportunity to experiment in an environment that is anything but intimidating. The staff are very friendly, happy to explain everything on the menu, and eager for you to try the intriguing options they’ve clearly worked hard to offer you.

Address: One Kendall Square, Cambridge

Website:http://www.bellywinebar.com/