Wine Konnection, in context

09/06/2009 12:00 AM

08/13/2012 9:02 PM

Two trips up Highway 50. One address in El Dorado Hills. Two distinctly different experiences.

Shall I apologize to Dickens (It was the best of times and the worst of times)? Or Tolstoy (Every unhappy restaurant experience is unhappy in its own way)? Perhaps Thomas Pynchon (A screaming comes across the sky, and it was the jazz band on the patio)?

In this, the third of our four-part look at wine bars in the area, my job here is to discern which restaurant will show up when you show up.

Overall: 3 stars
Service: 2 1/2 stars
Ambience: 3 stars
Food: 3 stars
Value: 3 stars

One visit was a stop at Wine Konnection, a classy, polished wine bar and restaurant with excellent service and good food, including short ribs so delicious and tender they practically dissolved while at rest on my tongue.

The other was dinner and dismay at a place we'll call Wine DisKonnection, where we had food that was cold, wine that was warm and service that was absolutely luke.

One visit found a wine bar with a can-do attitude that delivered two hours of fun, replete with pleasant exchanges with our server. Another was a place where we waited 20 minutes for our water, 90 minutes for our food, got abrupt, dismissive answers to our questions and a tall tale at night's end – the one where our waiter told us with a straight face, "It has been a great pleasure serving you this evening."

How do I sort through all this and decide what to conclude, what to share with you, the reader? How do we determine whether we are encouraged or concerned?

The answer is the same one I would have given you at any point in my career as a journalist. It's about context and proportion, about details, about what matters. It's about reporting, gathering, sifting, deciding. It always is.

Despite a stubbed toe from Visit 1, I'm going to go with encouraged and hopeful. I was impressed with owner (and former Intel executive) Bill Ramsey, his love for fine wines and his desire to build a great collection. As it stands, he's on his way, with many of the best-known wines from popular California wineries, including Rombauer, Caymus and Silver Oak, along with less common selections. I even spotted a $1,500 bottle of Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon. (Sadly, it was not available by the glass!)

I think Wine Konnection is a valuable component in a community that wants it, needs it, embraces what it's all about.

Successful places work hard to get the details right. Find a nice building, hone a good concept, hire a skilled chef and a capable staff, and strive to develop a relationship with the area's dining clientele.

All that effort and investment, only to find out that a restaurant or wine bar can be dramatically altered by the actions of a single person.

While I'm obligated to tell you about the missteps, I'm going to summarize them with an assumption – the not-so-stellar server was overwhelmed, the place was busy, and a manager should have noticed and intervened.

Long story short, I ordered the halibut ($18.95). When I asked for the waiter's input – should I get the flight of sauvignon blanc or chardonnay ($16.75)? – he replied "chardonnay," but gave no explanation. Yet, this is a wine bar. We're here to chat about wine. The server's unwillingness to do so felt abrupt.

The wines come; they're three small pours. I sip slowly because I'm waiting for my fish. My companion gets the grilled wagyu beef in a bavette cut, which is flavorful but a somewhat less tender part of the animal. Ours was tough eating. That came down to misjudgment in the kitchen, serving it as a full piece of steak rather than slicing it thinly across the grain in the interests of tenderness. That's the way I remember it at Ravenous Cafe, where the bavette was incredible.

By the time my halibut comes, 90 minutes has elapsed. The fish is good, but the cauliflower purée is cold. And those three glasses of chilled wines in my flight? I had saved them for this, but now they are warm. What's more, when I ask to see the wine list so I can keep track of what I'm sampling, the waiter replies, "Oh, you want to see the cheat sheet?"

When he returns, he says, "Here is your cheat sheet." I'm tempted to give him his own "cheat sheet." It's called "Lessons in Service From Charlie Trotter" by Edmund Lawler. Or, more appropriately, "What Color Is Your Parachute?" by Richard Bolles, about identifying a new career.

Fortunately, our second visit found a waiter who either had read the Charlie Trotter book or could write one of his own. His name was Tomas. And his singular efforts shaped anew our image of Wine Konnection. Here's a guy who loves wine and talking about wines. He described the food with enthusiasm and helped us pick nice wines. There was no mention of a "cheat sheet."

It was on this occasion that we had the incredible short ribs ($16.95) paired with a Caymus cabaret sauvignon. I had the steak salad ($10.95), which had a greater meat-to-greens ratio, including thick slices of bacon, than any "salad" this side of Argentina. I had a nice but not mind-blowing Silver Oak cab, one not commonly served by the glass. The steak on the salad was the same wagyu beef, but this time it was thinly sliced and very tender.

This second visit was a pleasure from beginning to end. It was clear that much of the difference was the effort, skill and enthusiasm of a single employee.

That's a lesson in service well worth noting.

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