Last weekend, the girls convened at Aria to celebrate several milestones, a job quitting and a relocation and new job chief among them. The destination was Aria, and as I approached and saw the packed crowd, I despaired of us getting a table. But--glory!--not only did they have seats for us, but they willingly seated me at a four-arrangement at the bar area even before my three companions had arrived. How refreshing!
A few things to note about Aria: It's loud, as most wine bars are. It's handsome, with wooden accents on the walls and a stark white tiled bar filling up the space not taken by wooden communal and individual tables. And the waiters wear suspenders and old-timey shirts, which is a little, well, pretentious.
And a mixture of pretense and casualness pervades the entire evening. The cocktail menu is printed on a laminated, faux-aged piece of parchment (remember when you used to dip your paper in coffee and burn the edges to make it look old when you were in elementary school? Yeah. That). It is so, so packed that you can't exit your chair-- literally-- without the person next to you, and probably the person next to him or her, getting up and moving their chairs. When the waiter comes over, he leans over one of your party-- very, very close over the shoulder of one of your party-- to explain the specials, which he writes on the menu in ballpoint pen. Why not just print the specials, especially if you have more than half a dozen? And especially if explaining the specials requires crowding your customers' personal space and shouting for several minutes to be heard? Nominally, it's because you "circle" your choices on the menu when you want to order, which also comes off as an affectation in a wine bar atmosphere like this. What's wrong with doing things... normally?
Oh, and there are no normal wine glasses, despite the fact that this is a wine bar. Bubbles are served in small tankard-looking glasses; still wines are served in small rocks glasses, filled to the brim. If you've read this blog before, you'll know my passion for good glassware, so needless to say this doesn't fly with me. Not only does it not leave room to enjoy the wines the way they're supposed to be enjoyed-- you know, smelling, swirling, enjoying the beauty of the wine in the glass-- but it also allows Aria to charge similar prices for smaller pours. I'd estimate that the serving size of the still wines here is 3-4 ounces, rather than the typical 6-8 that a big glass holds at a typical wine bar. Oh, and the water is served in two-ounce shot glasses; fortunately, they leave a bottle of tap on the table, but really, what IS the point of having to refill your water glass EVERY time you take a drink? Sheesh!
Okay, ranting aside. Let's talk about the food and drink. We had two orders of prosecco, one nero d'avola, and one albarino to start. And then came some bread with a few olives in olive oil (I nicked the olives ASAP, and they were quite good).
And we tried a cheese and several of the cicchetti, which were described as "Venetian tapas." The cheeses, at $5, were quite a bargain; I chose the Humbolt Fog Ashed Goat, which came as a big wedge of flavorful aged goat cheese, along with a handful of walnuts, a dish of honey, and a pot of incredibly, surprisingly delicious guava jelly, which went incredibly well with the cheese.
The ciccetti, at $9 each, range from good value to rip-off, depending on the portion and quality. Some of the better values included the enormous lamb shank, which KS pronounced delicious.
Slightly less of a good value, but no less popular, were the grilled eggplant stuffed with goat cheese (so tasty that the girls ordered another portion after finishing the first) and the crab cakes.
The octopus was well-cooked but not well seasoned, and the mushroom bruschetta with montasio cheese wasn't entirely successful-- AC didn't like the cheese, and it became too much like super-bready pizza (although kudos for the large portion).
The girls capped the meal with a petite $8 order of tiramisu in a pool of chocolate sauce.
And once we were finished, the waiter wasted no time in semi-ungraciously hinting that we should leave. Yes, it was busy-- but the fact that we clearly couldn't linger without ordering more made us feel effectively ushered out the door.
Overall, I think Aria is a bit too precious for its own good. Sure, it's a departure from the normal dark, brooding, romantic wine bar, but the fact that most wine bars follow a specific formula-- great glasses, large pours inviting atmosphere, low-key service-- is simply because that formula is really, really enjoyable. The silly glasses, the "circle-your-choices" ordering, the uneven portioning and quality of the food-- it all adds up to a little less than the sum of its parts. I commend Aria for doing something different, but I think it's just not my style, and it wouldn't be my first choice when choosing a West Village wine bar to return to.
Aria Wine Bar
117 Perry Street