Adventure Travel at Wet Stone

Wet Stone Wine Bar and Cafe

1927 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill

Wine bars are proliferating here at the speed of, well, gastropubs. Many of the earlier arrivals (and some new ones, too) offer only a few nibbles (cheeses, cured meats, bruschetta, etc.) as ballast for the bibulous, while others feature surprisingly resourceful cooking from often tiny kitchens. Wet Stone is one of the latter, with an ambitious, globe-trotting menu. I’d originally planned on a small group — just Marcie and me and Sam to make three — but our party suddenly doubled with an influx of out-of-town visitors. Yet with a long, varied menu like this one, the more the merrier.

I’d chosen Wet Stone thinking that a wine bar would be a quiet place to catch up. I was mistaken. The place has its charms, but not to any of the senses besides taste and smell. The front half is furnished with tall wooden bar tables and stools, with a compact splash of colorful geometric art on one wall. Farther back, dining-room seating is normal height, but the food is served on low cocktail tables, with unpadded benches along the wall and fake-leather backless hassocks on the other side. Eclectic, mainly ethnic music (flamenco, et al) plays rather too loudly, given the extra amplification provided by the architecture and the hard-surfaced design.

Turns out that wine bars are becoming the distaff answer to sports bars. The soprano hilarity of a “girls’ night out” gang in front overwhelmed my group’s attempt to converse in the back dining room. The narrow, multi-colored hanging lozenges that provide lighting are inadequate for reading the menu and wine list. A candle on the table was a feeble supplement. All food looks brown in the dark.

When at last, however, we get down to smell and taste (and another sense, adventure), Wine Stone does a fine job. Chef-owner Christian Gomez grew up in Barrio Logan, the youngest of seven to a chef father of Filipino-Spanish descent and a Panamanian-Chinese mother. His family’s business centered on importing Asian foods.

From his tiny kitchen comes a long, ambitious menu drawn from all over the Mediterranean and from Latin America, especially Peru (the most exciting food south of Mexico on the Pacific side of the continent). It begins with “Bocaditos” (small bites), which include salads and starters, followed by flatbreads and meat and cheese plates and meat skewers, concluding with more elaborate “Small Plates,” which would be sane-sized entrées were they served at home.

Wine Stone staffers are used to groups ordering family-style and provide small rectangular plates to each eater. (These aren’t changed during the meal, resulting in layers of culinary sludge piling up as the meal proceeds.) Our little bites proved surprisingly big bites.

A slab of house-made country pâté with a silky, urbane texture delighted us all. (Chicken livers were obviously the main ingredient, followed by heaps of butter or some other smooth fat.)

Even better was a special: our Swedish waiter, just back from a vacation in Peru, raved about the chef’s anticuchos, Peruvian marinated beef-heart kebabs. He was right to rave. The marinade was on the mild side (and, alas, there was no fiery green dipping sauce), but the meat was amazingly tender, cooked to just medium — better than the typical medium-well on the braziers in the mercados. The Peruvian connection continued with an albacore cebiche, obviously inspired by a rendition from Lima’s Chinatown, but here the chef stubbed his toe on the soy sauce, making the flavor harsh. (I wish the chef would consider substituting ahi poke, where additional flavors like dark sesame oil act to chill out the soy.) The classic accompaniments were all present: lengths of corn on the cob, cold sweet potatoes, citrus-cured onion slices, and even a little avocado purée as lagniappe. (Hey, Chef Gomez, can you recreate the tamarind-based sweet-sour pork from Lima’s El Gran Wony restaurant? I’d love to taste that again! Email me if you do it and I’ll be back in a flash.)

The Quesadilla do Guayaba is evidently South American, too — note the Portuguese “do” instead of Spanish “de,” pointing to a likely Brazilian inspiration. No tortillas here — it’s a puff of three melted cheeses striped with guava paste. I fell in love long ago with guava — it’s the paste that has the taste I adore. Some of my tablemates detected a hint of spice — it seemed to depend on where you cut into it. Whoops, here comes another great moan: our knives probably couldn’t cut warm cream cheese. I’m not insisting on Laguiolle steak knives at a modest eatery, but these are as blunt as long-used butter knives dredged out of a Goodwill bin...groups sharing food really need a sharper edge to divide the dishes!

A cleanly refreshing mango salad includes caramelized walnuts and baby greens in a light vinaigrette. We returned to the proteins with braised belly pork seasoned with Chinese five-spice blend, garnished with fennel slaw, pickled red onions, and a horseradish-tasting dressing. My party was more enthusiastic about it than I was, probably because I got the dish late in the rotation when it was nearly cool and my appetite was waning.

Despite the charming sautéed apples on the side, none of us cottoned to the French boudin noir (blood sausage), so blandly seasoned it could have passed for Irish black pudding. (No insult to the Irish intended, but whatever your ethnicity, try the luscious Argentine-style morcilla at Puerto La Boca in Little Italy to discover the difference that bolder seasoning can make.) Far livelier here was the well-grilled merguez, North African lamb sausage, served over a chickpea purée and surrounded by large pink pearls of pickled sour cherries. The sausage was deliciously crisp, the fruit intriguing. The garbanzo sludge, however, resembled half-finished hummus, or perhaps warm, wet adobe.

The Mac & Gourmet Cheese features soft-cooked penne in a caressing, creamy sauce, dotted with Italian prosciutto and Spanish chorizo, which is leaner and milder than the Mexican version. This clever interpretation is a far cry from Stouffer’s (which has become the gold standard of American-style mac ’n’ cheese), but it’s very good.

These last three dishes all came from the menu section misnomered “Small Plates.” They were actually the size of entrées, most larger than a health-conscious home-cooked main course. That’s the good part, I guess. The not-so-good: had I known the size of these plates, and that they’d descend on us in large bunches, I’d have ordered just a few dishes to start with and then another round later, if by some miracle we were still hungry.

The other sections of the menu are devoted to flatbread pizzas, cheese plates, and skewers. “To me,” said Marcie, “a proper flatbread is as thin as a cracker.” “But a lot of restaurants use the term to mean focaccia,” I said. “Then they should call it focaccia,” she answered. Here, the flatbread proved thinner than focaccia, thicker than a cracker, something like a New York pizza crust. (In any case, I like that texture better than the original flatbread — matzo.) We ordered the shiitake version topped with fontina cheese and baby arugula. I wasn’t okay with the hard, chewy mushrooms, which even included some bites of the inedible stems. (They’re not poisonous, but are too tough for anything except a soup-flavoring condiment, to be removed before serving.)

We concluded with the most expensive ($18) of the small (ha!) plates, the Surf and Turf, with grilled flatiron steak and a skewer of tiger shrimp over avocado-corn relish. We ordered the steak rare; it came medium-rare. Now and again this cut can be tender, but not here. The shrimp? Well, affordable tiger shrimp are nearly all farm raised in Asia and arrive frozen, so are rarely better than “just okay,” as they were here.

Wine, you may ask? Well, you betcha! We each ordered by the glass. I can only speak to my own choices. After seeing raves for it online, I began with the house white sangria. It’s more a light cocktail than a wine — fruity and fairly sweet and evoking an alcoholic soft drink. I’ll leave this one for the Yelpers — until summer, anyway. I moved on to an Argentine Sauvignon Blanc from Mendoza, with a tremendous tropical fruit aroma but a dry, rather simple taste. Around the table there were an Argentine Malbec (the sip I took was quite good), an Italian red, an Oregon white Müller-Thurgau, a Cal Cabernet, et al. Prices were restrained, choices were interesting, and the pours were big. (Don’t you hate wine bars that charge $12 and up for a miserly two ounces of Chateau de Nothing Special?). “A lot of wine bars here offer mainly California wines,” Sam said. “It’s good that these choices are more wide-ranging.” There were precious few Old World wines, which Marcie and I favor, but the list did well with the New World, especially apt given the South American tilt of some of the food.

Well, for all my moaning about the creature comforts (or lack of them) at Wet Stone, I do hope the restaurant flourishes enough to afford soundproofing on the ceilings someday, and maybe even some regular chairs. In the meantime, eating and drinking here is delightful enough to nearly overcome the insults to your ears and your tush. Taste something you don’t love? You can probably afford to gamble on something else. Your chances are a lot better than in a casino, because here, odds are, you’ll win. ■

Wet Stone Winebar & Café

★★★ (Very Good)

1927 Fourth Avenue (between Fern and Grape Streets), Banker’s Hill, 619-255-2856; wetstonewinebar.com

HOURS: Lunch Tuesday–Friday 11 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; Dinner Tuesday–Saturday, 5:00–10:00 p.m., Sunday 4:00–9:00 p.m.

PRICES: $8–$18

CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Generously proportioned grazing dishes with flavors from South America and all over the Mediterranean. Globe-trotting wine list but mainly from the Americas, by the bottle or glass (large pours!) at modest prices.

PICK HITS: Country pâté, Quesadilla do Guayaba, anticuchos (special), grilled merguez sausage, gourmet mac & cheese.

NEED TO KNOW: Large, shareable portions of tasty food easily rate three stars, but comfort is no-star: unpadded wood or backless hassocks for seating; front room’s tall tables inaccessible to wheelchairs, plus other mobility limits; dim lighting (bring small flashlight to read menu and see food); very loud; too many dishes delivered at once; dull knives. Small premises, reservations advised. Plenty for lacto-vegetarians; vegans mainly SOL.

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