Union Larder: the return of the straight-up wine bar

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See the original article here: San Francisco Chronicle

By Jon Bonné

Photo: John Storey / Special To The Chronicle
Photo: John Storey / Special To The Chronicle

“Crisis” would overstate it, but when it comes to wine bars, San Francisco is in an existential spot. Beer joints are approaching their event horizon. Cocktail spots have already passed theirs. But wine bars … remember those? Sometime about 2007?

Mission creep has turned many local wine bars into bistros in disguise, or exclusive boys’ clubs for those who go long on Echezeaux. That’s not unreasonable; it’s hard to pay the rent solely with flights of Riesling. But the wine bar, in its pure state, is a more transitory place. Come, sit a spell, and go.

I felt a rush, then, the moment I stepped into Union Larder, which occupies the bottom floor of a refurbished parking garage on the same sedate stretch of Hyde Street as Swensen’s. A wine bar, nothing more.

Owners Jay Esopenko and his wife, Melissa Gugni, own Little Vine, North Beach’s microscopic answer to Bi-Rite. Union Larder also functions as a sequel to their original store, selling sundries and an extensive cheese selection assembled by former San Francisco Cheese School Director Kristi Bachman, all of it available to eat there or take home. Esopenko’s inspiration was the Barcelona wine bar that he frequented in his 20s, the sort of place where you’d throw back a glass of cava, scarf a couple of slivers of cured meat and be on your way.

Union Larder is rather more welcoming, thanks in part to Eight Inc., which helped Steve Jobs design the Apple stores. The design brushes against industrialism — the bar’s coarse metal top, unfinished concrete framing the domed windows — yet evades the city’s current restaurant cliches. (Have we not reclaimed all the wood yet?) The 32-seat space is tall and airy enough to transition with grace from daytime shop to bar. Dusk falls and bar stools fill with young and mostly female customers.

Esopenko has devised a 40-bottle wine list, with most available by the glass, that leans heavily on newer California producers like Field Recordings and Calder, plus a smattering of Basque Txakoli, Anjou rosé and the like. His California choices in particular are pleasingly offbeat and modern, with some classics like Alban and Ridge thrown in. An intensely floral Spatburgunder — that’s Pinot Noir, by the way — is not from Germany but from Santa Barbara, made by the Teutonically inclined Graham Tatomer and served on tap.

Some fine-tuning on wine service is in order. I wish that the whites arrived a bit less frigid and the reds cooler (perhaps get them off the bar top), and that pricing was a bit more modest: While I adore Lieu-Dit’s Melon from the Central Coast, $16 per glass is steep for a $24 retail bottle.

“Larder,” incidentally, is not a metaphor. Chef Ramon Siewert, a Quince veteran, operates with a radiant-heat oven and meat slicer. He cures his own coppa, bresaola and such, making patés and terrines, and plays off Bachman’s work by populating the menu with fondue and raclette. The most ambitious might be Siewert’s Red Hawk BLT, which incorporates country bread with slightly too coarse a crumb so that pungent Cowgirl Creamery cheese oozes out of what’s already a bacon-larded sandwich decadent enough to make Mae West blush.

Just enough, in other words, to fulfill a wine-bar destiny.

Jon Bonné is The San Francisco Chronicle wine editor. E-mail: jbonne@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jbonne

If you go

To order: Brouhaha Pinot Gris ($10/glass); Tatomer Spatburgunder ($16/glass); any of the cheeses.

Where: Union Larder, 1945 Hyde St. (at Russell Street), S.F. (415) 272-7567. www.unionlarder.com.

When: Noon-11 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, from 5 p.m. Tuesday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday. No reservations.

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