In good taste
Stylish wine bar Carnegie Cellars lands in Neighborhood of the Arts; photos by Tomas Flint
247 N. Goodman St., Rochester
It took Carnegie Cellars almost a year to get its hands on an exclusive bottle of Pierre Péters champagne.
The bottle in question—a favorite of Wall Street Journal wine critic Lettie Teague—is rarely available in wine shops, let alone restaurants. So when owner Mike Clarcq learned his beverage rep carried it, he bugged him monthly.
“It kind of became a joke by September or October of me bothering him,” Clarcq says. Finally, he had an opportunity to carry it, but there was a catch. “They vetted us,” he remembers, sharing the rep wanted to know why they were interested in it and exactly what kind of a place Carnegie Cellars is.
Long story short, the new wine bar located in the Neighborhood of the Arts made the cut.
After dining there, I could see why. The restaurant has more than forty-five bottles on its list, with most available by the glass—save for the Péters champagne. They know each bottle intimately and can steer novices and aficionados alike toward something eye-opening.
“We try to have wines with stories behind them,” Clarcq says.
He sought the counsel of local wine expert and Rochester Institute of Technology professor Lorraine Hems when he set out to create the wine list. They started with about twenty wines, ranging from classic French Chardonnay to Spanish Tempranillo, and then it grew.
“If you want the Pinot Noir, we’ve got it, but if you want to try something else to taste a different grape, we have that as well,” he says, offering a Susumaniello from Puglia in southern Italy. He explains that it’s a grape few are familiar with that is between a Pinot Noir and Cabernet in flavor. “We try to have things with personality.”
While it all could feel intimidating, Clarcq and his team manage to be knowledgeable and approachable. They taste new wines together weekly, so they can speak to their favorites personally.
I initially felt overwhelmed by all the options. After talking to my server, Lauren, she helped me choose a glass of Locations ES ($14), a deliciously balanced Spanish red blend with Garnacha and Tempranillo. There was a great story behind it too. It’s the product of a pet project spearheaded by cult winemaker David Phinney.
After savoring my first sips, I immediately began plotting my next order. From Greek Sauvignon Blanc to Finger Lakes Saperavi, there was a lot of ground to cover, and I wanted to experience as much as I could.
Last September, Carnegie Cellars introduced entrees to their small plate menu, thanks to the addition of chef Steven Lara, who used to work at Ox and Stone. The rotating specials showcase the chef’s creativity. In the past, he’s made Danish pancake puffs with creme fraiche and sturgeon caviar and beef bresaola toast with horseradish. His regular lineup includes textbook-perfect chicken Milanese ($24), grilled octopus ($34), and fresh pasta.
There’s no one genre that the fare falls into, but it mirrors the wine list in many ways: it’s different and pushes boundaries. For those looking for something more familiar, Carnegie Cellars offers a burger ($22).
“My wife’s a very picky eater, and there was nothing on here that she was going to eat,” Clarcq laughs. “We added the burger, and that has been the staple. It’s very popular.”
Lara frequently prepares tacos on Tuesdays to celebrate his Mexican heritage, but they’re anything but average. He makes them with heirloom blue corn tortillas—housemade, of course—topped with local vegetables, chiles, and whatever sauce he’s feeling that week.
Adventurous eaters may like to try the pasta alla zafferano ($24), a housemade linguine coated in a buttery saffron sauce and shaved bottarga. I’m used to the floral flavor of saffron in sweet dishes, but the addition of the salty cured fish roe made me experience the ingredient in an intense new way. It was bold, spicy, and oddly addictive.
For those in the mood for lighter fare, go for several small plates and work through the wine menu.
The upper part of the menu is generally the most approachable (read, more friendly to picky eaters). Carnivores will love the Spanish chorizo ($10), a chopped salad without the lettuce composed of smoky cured meat and whole Marcona almonds. Its richness holds up to big reds, and it’s a natural fit for peppery Spanish wines.
The honeyed ricotta drizzled with spiced maple ($13) is another great choice. It feels elegant to slather grilled Flour City Bread in the creamy spread, but it’s also pretty unpretentious.
The space is equally impressive. Located on the same block as the Memorial Art Gallery, its exposed beams and floor-to-ceiling windows give the restaurant a gallery feel.
Clarcq worked with a local interior decorator to furnish the space. The entryway holds a massive wave-like pendant made by Sam+Lin Designs based in Penn Yann who created the metalwork for Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. A vibrant piece behind the bar is by local artist Lynne Feldman, whose studio is across the street from the restaurant.
Clarcq and his business partner, John Albert, visited nearly fifty wine bars across the East Coast to collect inspiration for the space. Clarcq says he wanted people to feel like they’re in a big city.
“We want you to walk in and forget about things for a couple of hours,” he says.
And that I did. It was Wednesday night on North Goodman Street, but I could have easily been in Manhattan or Providence. With one of the most robust wine lists I’ve seen in a while and the people to talk about it, I found myself getting lost at Carnegie Cellars.
I left mesmerized by their story—and the many glasses they used to tell it.