Vinous monastery

Henri finds a classy cure for the common cold evening at Monk’s

GOTTA HABIT Monk’s waitperson Kelly Corbett fortifies the glass of Amy Hughes with some choice red vino.

GOTTA HABIT Monk’s waitperson Kelly Corbett fortifies the glass of Amy Hughes with some choice red vino.

Photo By Tom Angel

Monk’s refuge: Monk’s, located at 128 Second St., is open seven days a week from 4:30 p.m. till close (“whenever it dies down, usually around 9:30 or 10”). Phone: 343-3408.

A devastating evening could have been in store for your faithful ecrivain de cuisine. I’d spent most of the day in front of the fireplace reading my new Barbara Stanwyck biography and decided it was time to think about dinner. Sacre bleu! Nothing in the refrigerator!

Well, very little anyway, and the thought of venturing into the cold wet evening was absolutely dreadful. I was staring out the window at the darkening fog and sipping a double vodka martini when the FedEx boy arrived at my door. Saved! My new Brooks Brothers overcoat! And a perfect fit, naturellemente.

So, fortified against the night, I headed for Monk’s Wine Lounge and Bistro, downtown Chico’s new “small-plate restaurant"—au courante in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and featuring dishes intended for two, three or more diners to share.

I stepped in out of the cold—greeted warmly—and felt like I’d been transplanted back to Barcelona or Paris. C’est tràs sophistique—a narrow, hallway-like, high-ceilinged room at the front of which are a couple of separate seating areas defined by area rugs, couches and coffee tables, and low-lit lamps on accent tables. Beyond the entryway, one wall is given over nearly completely to the bar and a huge, continental-style wine rack, while the other is lined with small, high tables with heavy, coated-wicker chairs. There are several more tables in the back.

I took a seat at the bar and was handed a wine list. Tràs interesant. The 60-plus wines—from California, Italy, Australia, Germany, France, and Portugal—were classified not by region or grape but by body and taste. The reds ranged from “Supple, Fruity and Mellow” to “Bold, Luxurious and Ripe,” the whites from “Bright, Crisp and Refreshing” to “Luscious, Opulent and Lingering.” Most of the wines are available by the glass and range from $5 to $12 (for a 2002 Guntrum Heinsessen Penguin Eiswein from Germany), while bottles run $18 to $100 (for a 1999 Schlumberger Cabernet Sauvignon). Bottles are also available retail for $5 less. “Brews” include bottled imported beers and American microbrews, as well as Sierra Nevada and Guinness on tap.

The bartender recommended the Curtis Heritage Cuvee ("Sensual, Velvety and Dynamic"), which was fine but lacked the body I was looking for on such a cold evening. He asked me what I had in mind—he clearly knew his wine list—and recommended the 2000 Schlumberger Syrah ($5) or the 2001 Sausal Estates 2001 Zinfandel ($10)—both “Rustic, Red and Woodsy.”

“Wait a sec,” he said. “I just remembered something.” He turned around and grabbed a bottle off the back bar. “Just got this in. Tell me what you think.”

He poured me a swallow and watched me sip it. “Not bad, huh? Not even on the menu yet.”

I nodded, and he poured me a glass, then handed me the food menu, which he emphasized changes frequently. That night, it included baked prawns wrapped in bacon; a Mediterranean platter, with hummus, tzatsiki and baba ghannouj (eggplant and tahini); barbecued-chicken pizza; avocado bruschetta; and tomato-basil soup. Prices range from $5-$15.

Soon, Monk’s started to fill up, and by 7:30 it was crowded with couples and parties sharing small plates and trading sips of wine. Henri ordered a cheese board, with local cheeses, grapes, and crackers, and a blue-cheese spread, with shrimp and roasted bell-pepper bruschetta. Very, very good, the cheeses complementing the wine perfectly—though Henri wished for a friend with whom to share his plates. Instead, he ordered two more glasses of wine.

By the time I finished, things were fairly chaotic, and it took a while to get my bill—the small staff seemed unprepared to be so popular so soon. I wrapped a piece of cheese up in my handkerchief, dropped it into my coat pocket, and headed for the door—vowing to return to find out what that wine was. When I got home, I shared the cheese with Miss Marilyn.