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The Pour: A New Restaurant, Frenchette, Stands Up for Natural Wines

Many of the 300 bottles or so on the list may indeed be distinctive and excellent, but they are also relentlessly obscure, with characteristics that some people may find surprising, and occasionally even appalling.

Rather than lard the list with expensive wines, as so many high-end restaurants do, Frenchette has devoted much of its lineup to the extremely reasonable $ 50- to $ 85-a-bottle range. That is still a lot to pay for wine, perhaps, but well below the Manhattan destination-restaurant norm, in which the wine list is often used as a cash cow to subsidize other parts of the operation.

In short, it’s a challenging list that may annoy some people who want recognizable names, yet is also brilliant. Mr. Riera, the wine director who came to Frenchette from Contra and Wildair, has built a list full of wonderful discoveries, great values and the sort of direct, unmediated experiences that characterize natural wines at their best. Almost all the wines are low in alcohol as well, 13 percent or less, and they go very well with the cuisine.

But Mr. Riera will have a lot of explaining to do, introducing producers and regions that will largely be unknown to people, no matter how well versed they may be in Burgundy, Barolo or Napa Valley.

“I did that on purpose,” Mr. Riera said. “It’s meant to stimulate a conversation about wine and go from there.”

Lee Hanson, one of the owners of Frenchette, said he would rather see his patrons progress from a cocktail to “maybe a couple of $ 50 bottles rather than one $ 200 power bomb.” Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

The idea, he said, is to eliminate preconceptions that people may have about how a wine ought to taste, creating the potential for discovery and surprise.

“It’s the same thing I did at Wildair and Contra,” he said. “I was able to delve deeper in this list, expand in areas where I couldn’t before due to size and budget restrictions.”

It’s an idealistic notion. When you don’t know exactly what to expect from a wine, you can experience it at an exhilarating level of intensity.

It reminds me a bit of dining at one of the temples of molecular gastronomy, like the now departed WD-50, where the chef Wylie Dufresne famously served an oyster flattened into something resembling a marble tile. To eat it was like mystery evolving into delight, as flavors long taken for granted were rediscovered, as if for the first time.

“We’ve worked with Jorge before, and we’ve been big fans of his as a natural wine Yoda,” Mr. Hanson said. “Personally, my best wine experiences are just sitting with him and drinking whatever he’s pouring.”

Mr. Nasr and Mr. Riera go back almost 30 years, to the late ’80s when they both worked at Park Bistro, a French restaurant on Park Avenue South that has long since closed. They went on in 1997 to open Balthazar, Keith McNally’s signature downtown restaurant. There, Mr. Riera was introduced to natural wines by Jonathan Nossiter, the sommelier, who went on to a career as a filmmaker and author.

Mr. Riera has become a key force in New York since then, promoting natural wines and building an audience for them, first at 360, an influential though brief-lived restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn, then at the Ten Bells, the Lower East Side wine bar, before moving on to Contra and Wildair.

Natural wines are no longer the furtive property of an insurgent group, as they were 15 years ago, when you essentially had to know the secret handshake to find them. Restaurants on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn and wine bars like the Ten Bells and Four Horsemen have built entire identities around natural wines. Eater.com has even published a map showing where you can drink them.

Acclaimed restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Joe Beef in Montreal have emphasized natural wines. But rarely, and never in Manhattan, has a restaurant as seemingly mainstream as Frenchette taken such a forthright, unequivocal stand in their favor.

For years, these wines have represented an easy button to push for anyone wanting to ignite a skirmish in the wine culture wars. Back in 2012, Steve Cuozzo, the restaurant critic at The New York Post, wrote a tirade assailing the restaurant Reynard, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for its list focused on obscure natural wines, of which, he said, he recognized not a single bottle.

That same year, mainstream wine critics were arguing that natural wines were foisting a scam on consumers. Nonetheless, the influence and importance of natural wines have grown as some of its favored genres, like pétillant naturel, have become, if not exactly mainstream, at least not uncommon.

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Much of the Frenchette wine list includes bottles in the $ 50 to $ 85 range, with characteristics that some people may find surprising, and occasionally even appalling. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

For Frenchette, the decision to focus on natural wines had little to do with marketing or the bottom line, its principals say, and all to do with food and atmosphere.

“If we’re going to cook traditional food, slightly more contemporary, lightened up just a touch, it would pair better with a more contemporary, which is really to say a more ancient, approach to winemaking,” Mr. Nasr said. “I think it makes sense, and maybe people can get on board with a sense of discovery. It’s supposed to be fun and provocative to a degree, but in a pleasurable way.”

In both the food and the wine, Mr. Nasr said, the intent was to create a feeling of lightness: slightly smaller portions, clarity and precision, that will not leave guests waking up the next morning feeling hung over from either the food or the wine.

As for the prices, Mr. Nasr said it was a conscious decision to rein them in, particularly for the wine.

“We’re not building a trophy restaurant,” he said. “I’ve been a cook pretty much my whole life, and $ 200 bottles are not something I really purchase.”

Mr. Hanson said the selection of less expensive, lower-alcohol wines encourages a progression over the course of a meal, “a cocktail, maybe a couple of $ 50 bottles rather than one $ 200 power bomb.”

One area where diners can splurge if they choose is Champagne, where critically acclaimed producers like Vouette & Sorbée and Ulysse Collin happen to work naturally. You can drink a naturally made Cornas from Hirotake Ooka that is a lesson in clarity and purity, or a deliciously deep though obviously unfiltered St.-Aubin from Julien Altabar’s Domaine Sextant.

But more often, Mr. Riera has selected producers who, whether because of an independent streak or because their wines don’t conform to a perceived norm, work outside the appellation system. On this list, Cornas and St.-Aubin are the exceptions to the more frequent Vins de France, a catchall category that has gained credibility as more producers have come to rely on the reputation of their own names rather than their regions. He also has more wines from Auvergne, a mountainous region in central France not known for viticulture, than I have ever seen anywhere.

Likewise, outside France, Mr. Riera has chosen to work with small, little-known appellations rather than prestigious ones: Conca de Barberà in Spain rather than Rioja, grignolino and ruché from the Piedmont region of Italy rather than Barolo. And you can find an excellent range of eastern European natural wines, like Strekov 1075 of Slovakia, which makes Rozália, a superb, refreshing rosé pétillant naturel.

“They’re all family farms, working by hand, no herbicides or pesticides, low yields, minimal sulfur or none,” Mr. Riera said. “Farming is the most important thing, and I think what the vines produce, beautiful, positive mineral energy. It’s just a nutritious drink, the way wine should be.”

In a small grace note, Arnaud Erhart, the proprietor of the influential 360 restaurant, is working the floor at Frenchette. He closed 360 in 2007 and, with his wife, Tania Puell, moved to Vieques, P.R., to run a diving business. Vieques was badly hit by Hurricane Maria last year, and the area is still recovering. So Mr. Erhart, who said he still has to pay his bills there, will be at Frenchette for the foreseeable future.

It’s a long way from Red Hook for Mr. Erhart and for natural wines.NYT > Food

Restaurant Review: Grant Achatz, Science-Minded Chef, Turns to Cloning

“Our Bloody Mary is very unique,” our server said brightly. “It takes about 15, 20 minutes to make.”

“Is it served … cold?” my friend asked, hope flickering weakly in her voice.

It was. A few minutes later, a relatively traditional Bloody was poured over many tiny ice marbles inside the bowl of what looked like a small spittoon. Around the spittoon’s broad brim were arranged five garnishes, or side dishes, or condiments, including chopped razor clam with celery sorbet and a little pillbox of horseradish jelly.

When we were alone again, she sighed and said, “I was hoping for a glass.” The Aviary’s Bloody Mary, by the way, costs $ 38.

We had come to try the daytime menu the Aviary recently introduced after two months or so of nighttime-only business.

While the drinks gave us a bumpy ride, all was smooth once we embarked on the three-course, $ 45 lunch, starting with a roasted squash soup and a salad. Both had pieces of fruit and vegetable that had somehow been talked into tasting like more than they were. Finally there was a sandwich of fried, buttermilk- and yuzu-brined chicken thigh with pickles and shredded iceberg lettuce on a bun with more sesame seeds to the square inch than I’ve ever seen. The dressing was a toasted sesame sauce, and, like everything else about the sandwich, it was excellent.

Apart from a fried pork rind the size of a dish towel, the items on the evening menu are generally wispy: a single, wonderful tempura shrimp with slices of yuzu-scented pear; an octopus croquette under streamers of bonito. There is one of Mr. Achatz’s earliest inventions, the raviolo filled to the bursting point with black-truffle broth. It is still a marvel. There was only one dish I did not like, but boy, did I not like it: cold pork belly in a bland goo of banana curry, sandwiched between flat discs of iceberg lettuce.

These plates run from $ 11 to $ 29. Two or three would make for an interesting postcard from the inside of Mr. Achatz’s head. Ordering the whole roster would leave you a couple hundred dollars poorer and no wiser, though. The menu is not designed for that kind of eating.

Neither is the Aviary, although it’s hard to say just what it is designed for. Deals between chefs and hotels invariably entail compromise, but Mr. Achatz and Mr. Kokonas may have given up too much here.

Sunk a few steps below the hotel lobby and dominated by a view of the Central Park skyline, the space is an awkward combination of destination and waiting room. Achatz devotees who paid for their spots weeks earlier through Mr. Kokonas’s reservations and guest-tracking service, Tock, may find themselves at curved leather lounge chairs next to hotel guests taking phone calls between meetings.

The Wake and Bake cocktail at The Aviary. Credit Cole Wilson for The New York Times

There’s no sense of arrival, nothing to suggest you’re entering the domain of a restaurant group that has always refused to do things the usual way.

You do get that sense when you enter the Office. The Chicago Office is downstairs from the Aviary; in New York it is behind a wooden door just past the Aviary’s cocktail-assembly station. Suddenly faceless hotel luxury gives way to a den of leather club chairs, parquet floors, clothbound books, manual typewriters, contemporary art, eccentric antiques.

The two Offices are usually called speakeasies. This one looks to me more like the library of stately Wayne Manor.

The theme is tradition. This being an Achatz project, the theme is pushed to its limits and beyond. Micah Melton, the beverage director of both lounges (in both cities), scours auctions and private sales for old bottles of spirits. Some of the older ones go here for $ 500 an ounce or more, straight up. Others are mixed into what the menu calls “dusty bottle cocktails.”

As a way to get rid of money, this is both alluring and appalling. I couldn’t bring myself to order a $ 475 old-fashioned stirred from bourbon bottled in 1969. But I couldn’t resist learning what happens when 75 grams of shaved truffle soak in a bottle of Chartreuse. (It’s fascinating, but not more delicious than untruffled Chartreuse.)

The short food menu appears to have been printed by letterpress. On it are a number of time-honored plutocratic pleasures, such as cold oysters, foie gras terrine, and a really fine and forcefully seasoned tartare of ivory-veined rib-eye.

Steamed mussels in cream with leeks and bacon are $ 35. If any pot of mussels is worth that much money, this is it. Vegetable crudités may sound like nothing. They’re very much something, a miniature forest of fruits and vegetables treated this way and that, then set on chipped ice with a dip — a harmonious, understated vadouvan-squash cream the last time I went.

The contortions that Mr. Melton and Mr. Achatz put liquor through at the Aviary are as imaginative as cuisine gets; they probably have more freedom than they would if the place were a restaurant. But rather than asking how a Bloody Mary, say, can be improved, or what its essence is, they seem to ask: How would the Aviary serve it?

The answer always seems to require equipment. The bird-all-the-way-out drinks especially are like elaborate magic tricks with metal boxes into which the beautiful assistant will vanish. Somehow, the boxes upstage the assistant. The cocktails at the Office are more like close-up card tricks. My favorite is: Mix me a drink and I’ll make it disappear.

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The Aviary NYC, The Office NYC

80 Columbus Circle

(West 60th Street)

Upper West Side

212-805-8800

Atmosphere The Aviary is a comfortably modern if generic hotel lounge; the Office does a hushed impersonation of a movie millionaire’s library. Service is extremely pleasant. Some servers are still learning the ropes, but there are a lot of ropes to be learned with any Grant Achatz endeavor.

Sound Moderate.

Recommended Dishes Aviary: black truffle explosion; octopus croquette; tempura Hawaiian shrimp; giant crispy pork skin. Office: mussels; salmon rillettes; rib-eye tartare. Aviary: $ 11 to $ 29. Office: $ 21 to $ 64.

Drinks and Wine The Aviary is inventive and the Office respects tradition, but both mix an array of cocktails that would be unimaginable anywhere else. Beer and wine are available, but beside the point.

Price $ $ $ (expensive)

Open Aviary: Daily from lunch until late night, with a one-hour late afternoon break. Office: Daily from cocktail hour until late night.

Reservations Accepted.

Wheelchair Access An elevator serves the accessible restrooms and the dining rooms, with some sunken areas reached by ramps.

What the Stars Mean Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, good. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, extraordinary.

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NYT > Food