Pay Dirt 

C’est le Vin is worth finding in Shockoe Bottom.

click to enlarge food16_cest_le_vin.jpg

If you ask people who dine out frequently to recommend favorite restaurants, chances are they'll hold back on obscure spots they want to keep for themselves. It's purely selfish: They've found treasures and don't want them overrun by the masses. Often these places aren't fancy, but the food is terrific and the prices can make them regular destinations.

C'est le Vin qualifies on all counts. The two-year-old wine shop, an appealing space with changing art exhibits, live and recorded music, and a wide-ranging selection of affordable bottles, lately has put its emphasis on the food.

Chef Carly Herring, formerly of the Empress, moved east to helm the kitchen and transition C'est le Vin into a dining destination. While the menu has taken a turn into tapas territory, there are entrees as well, and unlike some wine shops that offer food, the menu here is more than sandwiches, salads and cheese plates.

Tapas come in two sizes, depending on how much the diner wants of any one taste. Marinated white anchovies with garlic and herbs on crostini ($4/$8) immediately grab our taste buds with a promise of good things to come. Meatballs of sirloin and chorizo with shaved Parmesan and red sauce ($5/$10) rise above the typical with the heat of spicy sausage. Shrimp in roasted garlic aioli ($8/$16) is rich, but it's the roasted garlic flavor that has us reaching for another and another.

Vegetarians will appreciate 11 meat-free tapas options on the spring menu. Sautéed spinach with golden raisins, apples and pine nuts ($4/$8) could make a spinach lover out of anyone. Poquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese and sprinkled in toasted pine nuts ($6/$12) deliver both depth of flavor and textural contrast.

There's no such thing as a standard salad here. We went back and forth between the broiled endive with blueberry vinaigrette, gorgonzola and orange candied walnuts ($8) and the quinoa salad with kalamata olives, roasted wild mushrooms, green onions and black pepper pecans ($5/$10), hitting pay dirt with both.

The entree list is small with pork, fish, chicken and vegetarian options and topping out at $22. At the high end is the braised pork chop with sautéed white beans, tomatoes and spinach. It's fork tender with perfectly al dente beans.

C'est le Vin isn't a fancy place. The vibe is decidedly low-key. There's a small bar and a couple of tables on the wine shop side, but most are on the other side of the brick-wall divider. There you'll find tablecloths but also the kind of chairs you'd find in a meeting room.

On nice evenings the windows along Walnut Alley are opened, providing a view to the street theater of the neighborhood. Through the front window, a train whistles by on the overhead tracks. The music varies from classic soul to adult alternative, but the volume makes conversation easily manageable.

A restaurant in a wine shop has the advantage of an excellent selection and unrestaurantlike wine prices from $17 to $22 with by-the-glass prices for the entire wine menu. Service is friendly and you'll see a lot of your server because tapas come out when they're ready. If a table doesn't suit your mood, enjoy food and wine on the couch instead. For a break between courses, get up and peruse the ever-changing art on the walls. And keep your eye out for live jazz there because the room is acoustically excellent.

After a third recent visit, a friend looks at me half accusingly and half smugly. "Right now I'm glad more people don't know about this place," she says. I know what she means, but they're bound to find out. S

C'est le Vin
15 N. 17th St.
649-9463
Tuesday: 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Wednesday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Sunday: Noon - 6 p.m.
Cestlevin.com

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