I don’t remember exactly how the tradition started. Maybe one of us had a case of the Mondays. More likely both of us did. I have a friend — let’s call her Rachel, because her name is Rachel — who works so close to me we can practically wave at each other from our offices. It is convenient that these offices are a mere few blocks from the tiny wine bar haley.henry. (I don’t know why the name is styled like that, but as someone with a less-than-usual name spelling, I’ll respect the choice.)
On this day we needed cheering, and so the plan was made: Meet on the corner, adjourn to the wine bar, ASAP. It was the usual midwinter New England kind of weather, and the wind wrapped around us as we walked, in that particular chilling way it has on narrow old downtown Boston streets — like some kind of sorcery enacted by colonial wizards who forgot to specify “for Brits only!” We reached haley.henry and hurled ourselves inside, where it was dim and cozy. We sat at the bar, and managing partner Kristie Weiss told us stories about the liquids in the bottles that surrounded us, and then she poured.
One of the many great things about haley.henry is that the staff will open any bottle you’ll drink two glasses of. Come with a friend and this throws the doors wide open on your options, which are fairly enthralling. Proprietor Haley Fortier only buys wine made in quantities of 3,000 cases or less, which puts the focus entirely on small producers. So with your glass of Umbrian orange wine comes a narrative: It’s made from just four rows of grapes. The building it’s made in doesn’t have electricity. Your reality may be a cold Boston evening, but somewhere this is someone else’s: a small farm in Italy, a warmer wind, no lights to distract when the stars come out. Talk about a message in a bottle. It seems impossible that it would find its way from there to here.
haley.henry has about 70 bottles on the list at any given time. Each one has a tale like this. It makes the place a wine library as much as a wine bar. Anyone who is a sucker for a story will appreciate it.
Weiss had suggested something sparkling, and our spirits rose with the bubbles. We should eat something. haley.henry specializes in tinned fish — cockles in brine from Barcelona; tuna pate from Gijon, Spain; spiced sardines in olive oil from Porto. It’s a long list, and it’s hard for me to see beyond my beloved sardines, but Rachel stopped reading after the first item: smoked eels in olive oil from Lisbon.
Oh, good choice. The eels are plump, silky with oil, just smoky enough. They are served in their tin, on a black slate beside a dollop of aioli, a few lemon wedges, some leaves of flat parsley, and a pile of coarse salt. The little eels are perfect on their own, but it’s fun to mix and match the accompaniments. There are also two rolls on the slate, which means you can make what might be the world’s most satisfying open-face sandwich: schmear of aioli, parsley, eel, squeeze of lemon, sprinkle of salt. Bite.
Executive chef David Cavilla puts together a wine-friendly menu of dishes: cured meats and cheeses, roast bone marrow, prime rib sliders, seasonal soups and salads. There are daily crudo selections and panini. Recently, after a long day, I came here alone, tired, and ate an omelet filled with rock shrimp, potato strings, and ramps. Sometimes you just want someone to make you a quiet omelet for supper.
I love this space. It feels like a ship’s galley. It seats maybe 30 at the bar, by the window, and at a few tables. There’s a tiny kitchen on the counter, with two induction burners and a sandwich press, shelves easily rearrangeable thanks to the wood pegboard on the wall. Despite the close quarters, they still manage to make things like pheasant pate in house. I love that the menu includes bread, butter, and bottarga, a cured fish roe. It’s a small-ticket menu item, but it offers so much — a sensibility, a point of view, a quirky and simple nourishment. In this way, haley.henry reminds me a bit of the New York restaurant Prune, where the food always tells a story, where the food in fact exists to tell a story. Both places are adept at this form of communication.
Both are also “female owned & dominated,” as the check at haley.henry states with pride and humor. (Fortier — who plans to open a Fenway wine bar, nathálie, in the coming months — worked at Barbara Lynch’s Sportello, and the wine list salutes by name a roster of nearly 30 female producers haley.henry supports.) If not for that humor, the wine bar might feel pretentious, but this is a place that blasts cheesy old-school tunes — Biz Markie! — and specializes in knowingly terrible puns. Think “Biggie Small Plates” (there are frequent Biggie salutes), and “Tighty Whitey Bulger” as a wine category.
That evening, Rachel and I were expected someplace else, but it was tempting to stay right where we were and order more wine, more eels. Instead, we got up and promised each other this would be a Monday-night tradition.
Of course, we got busy, and we haven’t made it back. But I think a onetime tradition can still be a tradition, in the way an event can be “first annual.” Most weeks now one of us texts something like: “Can you eel?” or “Are you suuuuure you don’t want eel tonight?” or just a series of mermaid and dragon emoji (the best stand-ins we can come up with for an actual eel).
One of these nights, sure as a case of the Mondays, the answer will be yes.
45 Province St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-208-6000, www.haley