Flat gray skies, an insistent wind, dark streets. In summer, I'll take color and invention on my plate, but winter calls for elementary comforts. A cozy place away from drafts. Good wine with strong cheeses and cured meats. Simple things, done well.
That's what makes Belly Wine Bar such a welcome destination on a recent night when Kendall Square could double for the steppes of Siberia. Belly takes all of the elements of a classic wine bar and presents them in ways that first comfort, then surprise and delight. Launched by Nick Zappia and Liz Vilardi of next door neighbor The Blue Room and Cambridge wine and cheese store Central Bottle, Belly offers interesting and unusual wines and the salty, smoky, savory morsels that go with them. It's all set in a simple rustic space with wood plank tables and a painted tile floor. We walk in and sit down, though the no-reservations policy occasionally translates into a wait.
Small plates — and they're mostly small but still shareable and reasonably priced here — are divided into charcuterie, salumi, cheese, oysters, and snacks. Chef Robert Grant's selection of homemade charcuterie comes to our table on a weathered wooden cutting board. A coarse, peppery pork terrine flecked with parsley has just a hint of smoke, veal terrine is subtle with hints of anise, a grainy house-made mustard and pickled vegetables are perfect complements. Chicken liver mousse is luscious and velvety without being too rich. "I don't really like chicken livers," announces someone in our party, spreading a fourth helping onto toasted bread.
A platter of salumi arrives. Jamon iberico is tender with deeply satisfying porkiness and — an approving Madrid-born friend informs me — not too much salt. It's a mark of distinction for this specialty ham, which isn't as good elsewhere in town. Duck breast prosciutto, its richness balanced by balsamic vinegar, melts on the tongue. Morcilla fresca, a black blood sausage served warm with garlic aioli, is made without the rice of the classic Spanish preparation, but is plump and juicy with a hint of muskiness. It's balanced in color and texture by a scallop boudin blanc sausage in a lobster reduction. Cleverly sliced into rounds to resemble scallops, it's soft and subtle, a perfect foil for the more assertive meats on the menu. All are made in-house except the jamon iberico.
The cheeses selected by Central Bottle's Stephanie Santos are divided into fresh, butter, earth, salt, funk, the blues, and home grown, all appealingly arrayed under glass domes on a long table. We try the "butter," a creamy delice de Bourgogne served alongside toast, pear butter, and a dollop of local honey. Then we descend into a cheese rapture. "I didn't know they made cheese like this," whispers a companion.
Surprises are spiked throughout the mainstays on the menu. Lamb bacon and
eggs is a strip of salty cured meat with bright, golden dried yolks cut in a fine chiffonade and sprinkled on top. It's both strange and familiar in the best possible way and instantly memorable in its combination of crisp, salty, smoky, and gamy. Cavatelli with tripe, black kale, braised tomato, and Parmesan is another revelation, homey and comforting, with the pasta mirroring the look and texture of the tender meat. Another pasta, tiny fregola sarda, the size and shape of Israeli couscous, is toasted to a barley-like nuttiness with brown butter balanced by lightly pickled vegetables. It's simple and complex all at once.
Salads and vegetables are inspired, too, though the menu has relatively little green on it. A simple arugula salad is beautifully but simply dressed and enhanced by the crunch of pistachios. A bowl of yellow beets, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, and horseradish perfectly combines sweet and earthy. We all hover, our forks clang as they meet over the bowl. We order another.
Not everything rises to this level, of course: The cured salmon is artistically presented on a lake of creme fraiche but is merely good. Rabbit rillettes are dry and plain under a prune and Armangac crust. They're perfectly fine, but don't make much of an impression in the company of bolder, more original flavors that surround them on the menu. And even reasonably priced plates can add up.
The relaxed but knowledgeable server guides us through an interesting selection of wines. It's not a huge list, but it's made up of many varietals not usually poured in Boston. About a quarter are orange wines, white wines macerated in grape skins, which gives them their distinctive color and a slightly funky sherry-like quality. The light, dry Denavalo "Dinavolino" and fruitier Radikon "Slatnick" match up beautifully with the salumi. Some selections are seasonal, like the warm, fruity barberas on a recent visit. (Others are topical: Belly offered a "binders full of women" selection by women vintners in the final month of the presidential campaign). All are on sale at Central Bottle, our server tells us, and it feels more like a friendly tip than a canny cross-marketing scheme. Wines come in half- and full-glass options to encourage exploration.
And explore we do, as our earlier thoughts of a few quick tapas before a movie fade into hours of talking and nibbling. Perhaps another half-glass of something. A few oysters. A little calves' liver. Who wants to head out into Siberia?