By Dan Harkins
PORT ORANGE - It can now be said without much dispute that Tuscan Village Shoppes offers locals a poshly appointed launching pad to the world's many spirited traditions - one glass or plate at a time.
At one end of this tony center, at 3510 S. Nova Road, is a new World of Beer and its promise of ale abandon. At the other end is the elegantly appointed Wine Bank and Vault. This is where the chefs are trained to dole out a globally inspired sampling of gourmet delights. This is where the servers are quick to arrange every little detail and are trained to know just what type of wine goes best with every plate that leaves the kitchen.
Deposit your backside into a seat in this posh bank's interior and let the tastes, sights and sounds come to you - a two-piece jazz ensemble over in the corner; the comforting roar of an already-vibrant crowd on a recent Saturday night. And this gastropub's just a few months old. The dull colors glimmer from the racks upon racks of wine at the center of the cavernous room.
Tall floor-to-ceiling curtains and deep hues of paint make the focal point this establishment's very center, a glass-enclosed room typically set to a constant 59 degrees F that contains the establishment's finest wines - ranging from $50 to $2,000 - and room for a single table in a quiet seclusion from the bustle out there, where the rest of the wines line rack-after-rack of Roman god Bacchus' passion. During the fall-to-spring wine season, proprietor Eric Ruiz will be carrying about 500 labels to choose from.
Here and there on the walls, a famous quote about what's in all the glasses reminds customers of why they've come. "Who stole the cork from my lunch?" asks W.C. Fields from on high. "Reality is an illusion that occurs due to lack of wine," states someone named Anonymous.
"We've worked diligently for the past 3-1/2 months to open this store," said Mr. Ruiz near a crowded bar, "and we're really excited about the turnout we're getting already."
Whether it's a top-shelf selection you seek to celebrate a promotion or a house variety to keep the landlord happy, owners Eric Ruiz and Spencer Whelton are well-appointed to assist you.
Mr. Ruiz is a certified level-three sommelier who's performed those duties for four-star New York City establishments. A decade ago, he started working in the wholesale side of the wine business
"I used to go into restaurants and wine shops for my career to do seminars promoting my wines to the servers and managers," Mr. Ruiz said. "So I've seen hundreds of wine shops across the country, and I've seen what they did right and I've seen what they've done wrong. This was a dream and it came true."
It all started about three years ago over a glass of (what else?) wine with Mr. Whelton, a Virginia transplant who "visited down here and never left." About a decade ago, the two friends started making plans for a gourmet gastropub where customers can be treated to an array of wines and a tantalizing lineup of recipes.
They started with a 1,500-square-foot spot in Ormond Beach, where Mr. Ruiz has lived with his wife and two children for a decade. That was last fall. The public was so responsive, the two started planning for another location in Port Orange almost right away.
"It would be dumb for us not to capture this market," Mr. Ruiz said, "We've been able to bring something that would normally be in a place like Ormond Beach, and bring it down to the Port Orange community."
They believe they're capturing a following by offering premium wines with no corkage fees, no restaurant markup and a well-educated staff delivering not just various house wines by the glass ($6 and up) or bottles selected while waiting for a table, but also a compact-but-diverse menu utterly crammed with culinary delights.
This evening starts with Mr. Ruiz's suggestion of a wine flight for two of New Zealand Pinot Grigio from the vineyards of his friend, Richard Berridge, maker of Drystone wines, who recently attended a Friday tasting at the bank.
Each diner gets three small glasses of Drystone, from 2004 to 2006, so that the mellowing of the grape with aging in an oak barrel can be easily noticed even by novice taste buds.
These come along with slender and crispy breadsticks, baked cheese on top.
The first sign that dinner will be well-prepared: No salt or pepper on the tables.
"Oh, you noticed that," smiled Mr. Ruiz. "You can get salt and pepper if you ask, but you probably won't."
Executive Chef Bob Plugge, who most recently ran the kitchen at the well-received Three Dogs Grill in Palm Coast, offers a menu that needs no post-kitchen seasoning.
"We're a gastropub serving comfort food that's kicked up several notches," said Mr. Ruiz.
We started with Tuna Titaki ($15), fat slivers of sushi-grade tuna loin on house-made crunchy tortillas, drizzled with a creamy and teriyaki-tinged sauce that kept getting licked up off the plate after the tuna was all gone.
But we could just as easily have gone with a more traditional approach, like a three-cheese plate ($14) or a platter of charcuterie or smoked salmon ($12.50).
For dinner, gourmet and comfort truly come together. A total of six entrees are all that's needed, from the pricey prime rib ($25) to the affordable mac and cheese ($10) that can be souped up with shrimp for an extra $5. Also offered are four sandwiches that span the globe: from Cuban ($10) and meatball sub ($10) to French dip ($12) and turkey panini ($10). A few specialty salads and three flatbread pizzas - margarita, duck confit, and beef and blue cheese - round off the menu nicely.
We got a heaping helping of shepherd's pie ($14) that somehow managed to stand up on the plate without the assistance of a crock. My guest got the house special, a Mediterranean version of the steak pizzaiola ($18) on the menu, featuring medallions of sirloin bathed in a San Marzano tomato sauce that's studded with olives, garlic and herbs.
For dessert, all that was needed were the four chocolates that came to help us finish off the last of our wine with the proper look of satisfaction on our faces.
Make a reservation at the Wine Bank and Vault by going to www.winebankandvault.com or calling (386) 492-4899.