It’s not hard to spot a serious wine bar. It has a serious wine list. Take the new Belly Wine Bar, in Cambridge, which highlights the obscure (“orange” wines, whites fermented with grape skins) and the specific (a whole section from Italian producer Alois Lageder).
Then there’s Sip Wine Bar + Kitchen, which on its website offers viewers the chance to see either the dinner menu or the cocktail menu. Wine does appear on the latter, along with frozen Bellinis in five fruit flavors, grapefruit-basil martinis, and something called “mangria” (made with manly, manly vodka). It just doesn’t get any billing.
Offerings are sorted into helpful categories, from “sweet & bubbly” to “spicy reds.” They come in user-friendly portions — sip, half glass, full glass, and bottle. How nice to be able to have a half glass of white and a half glass of red with different courses, or to sample a wine one is curious about. It’s just that there is nothing here to make one curious — no oddities, no strong personalities, no evocations of the winemaker’s craft. Nothing that would turn someone on to the poetry and romance of the drink, evolving in the bottle. Nothing that would inspire anyone to buy a plane ticket to explore some obscure, grape-obsessed corner of the world. There is Walnut Crest cabernet sauvignon and Santa Margherita pinot grigio, and other selections easily found at the corner packie. And who can trust a list that offers “melot,” “processo,” “sauvignin blanc,” and “reisling”? (“I” before “E,” unless one is several glasses in, and then who cares.)
What Sip’s wine list is is useful. It offers generous pours — a half glass is 6 ounces and a full one 10. It provides plenty of choices recognizable to the average drinker. Its markups are fair. It serves its purpose, as does Sip: to be a reasonably priced, convenient stop for many, after work or on the way to a show or in from out of town.
This space was formerly Bina Osteria, which began its life as an expensive, misunderstood Italian restaurant that never quite got the business it should have. Sip keeps the same basic look and layout — bar to one side, dining room to the other — with blue accents added in. The sister store next door, once specialty market Bina Alimentari, is now partnered with Sip. It has been remade as the arguably more-practical-for-more-people Avery Provision Co., selling grab-and-go sandwiches, prepared foods, and more. And it appears Sip is busier than Bina ever was.
This is the latest in the portfolio of Legendary Restaurant Group, which also operates Scollay Square, Max & Dylans, Papagayo, and others. Overseen by chef and co-owner Chris Damian, the food isn’t mind-blowing, but there’s more creativity than there might be, and a variety that is intriguingly weird: Pretzel bites! Sushi! Guacamole! Short ribs!
Those pretzel bites anger the Philadelphia natives at the table. Soft and without chew, served with a cheesy dipping sauce, they are to real Philly pretzels what Finagle’s round-bread-with-a-hole products are to real New York bagels. But then, plenty of people love Finagle.
Fried calamari is like eating squid-flavored rubber, but polenta fries are more snack-worthy, crisp and rectangular, stacked like Lincoln Logs. They come with a creamy sauce flavored with mushrooms, Parmesan, and nutmeg. Tempura green beans are coated in light, craggy batter, although chipotle barbecue dipping sauce makes an oddly Western accompaniment. There is a woodsy flatbread of mushrooms and fontina that tastes just fine on a fall evening. Onion soup has plenty of flavor but too many onions and not enough broth; the cheese toast on top is flaccid. Many of Sip’s small plates make pleasant nibbles, tasty enough without demanding attention.
The sushi is prepared by a chef who also makes it for Avery Provision Co. Offerings include the Sip scallop roll (tempura scallops, torched salmon belly, and tobiko) and the spicy girl roll (tuna, salmon, jalapeno sauce, cucumber, and tempura flakes). Firecracker yellowtail is an arresting presentation of sashimi topped with bright green chili slices, with a mound of shaved daikon, against a painted sunset of sauces on the plate. It explodes with real heat.
Main courses can be a mess, even with the simpler dishes. Two of the worst offenders: the burger, overcooked and tasteless, and the penne caprese. The pasta is said to come with heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, but the cheese has melted into the background of a nondescript red sauce. Pan-seared scallops with melted leek risotto and spinach sounds like a substantial plate, but the risotto is fried into wee cakes (frying makes everything taste better at Sip), each topped with one scallop. The seafood is cool by the time it arrives at the table. A large piece of raw tuna, lightly seared at the edges, is a more-successful preparation, served with once-nouveau wasabi mashed potatoes. And short rib, tender and savory, is something you’d be proud to produce in your crockpot.
In its barely baked tart shell, lemon meringue pie tastes like the inside of the cooler where it malingered. S’more sticks feature skewered toasted marshmallows, suspended over tiny dishes of melted chocolate, graham cracker crumbs, and raspberry coulis. The riff has nothing on the original. Sauces are scant, and what’s raspberry doing in the mix? More problematic, the marshmallows are toasted long enough before serving that they arrive cold and hard.
On the plus side are Sip’s friendly, eager servers, who joke about the obnoxious music (I’ve never been to a Moscow vodka bar for the nouveau riche, but I’d imagine this is what one sounds like) and make unsolicited recommendations. If they sometimes judge the merits of the dishes on how big they are, well, that’s a key yardstick for many.
As for the cocktails, they’re not bad. The fruit-flavored Bellinis aren’t overly sweet. The grapefruit-basil martini is balanced and refreshing, made with fresh-squeezed juice. Just don’t come to this wine bar in search of horizons-expanding wine.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.