A plate of good cheese and a glass of wine can leave you wondering why we bother with anything else.
At Third & Vine in downtown Jersey City, beverage director Brian Rothbart, fromager Jamie Mayne, and Chef Lynn Wheeler have developed a space and a menu that are as inventive as they are comforting.
The cheese and wine tavern, tucked over on Third Street, has an unassuming exterior that’s indicative of the vibe but not the food. Third & Vine is a neighborhood joint, for sure — a place to leave your long day behind — and it’s also discovery zone with weird/cool/exciting stuff to eat and drink.
Part of the team’s effort includes going back to old school flavor profiles and undoing damage from bad cocktail experiences in the wild. “Educate” can be an icky word used in reference to a bar, but here, the idea is a shift in perspective. After a successful summer gin program, they took a leap of faith with their current spotlight on sherry, a name that sounds like a lady stuck to a slot machine in Vegas, and the drink most would assume that very lady is sipping. This is one instance of many where an entire category of beverage has been unfairly lumped under a false definition. In this case, “sherry” has come to mean “sweet.”
“Most of it is bone dry,” Rothbart said, “but that’s not the perception. The perception is that it’s what our grandmothers drink.” The sherrys we sampled on our visit can only be described as earthy, like the floor of the forest, or a brand new mushroom.
So why the misconception? “Your brain tricks you,” he said. “It’s very difficult to have an objective palate.” The reason for this, he explained, is that, in an effort to create symmetry, the brain links smells with flavors, creating associations that are sometimes inaccurate. A sugary backyard sangria can tie every smell in the pitcher to “too sweet,” when those flavors were accomplices in the crime, but not the culprit.
To further prove the point, Rothbart asked me to close my eyes and held a container to my nose. I couldn’t pick up any smell at all. When I looked, I saw it was a cup of sugar. “You can’t smell sweet,” he said. “It’s a taste.” And just as it’s wrong to make a sugary mess, he also points out that it’s a mistake to insist on avoiding sugar completely: “You need a little sweetness.”
As far as the cheese goes, the menu is a flavor map they are happy to help you interpret, with offerings that range from the mild to the supremely stinky. Mayne makes a point to test the cheeses daily and not just for fun. “Cheese changes every day,” she said.
“We just try to keep fun things that are really high quality,” Rothbart said. “The menu is designed to be comfort food. That’s what people crave.” In short, they’re trying to hit every part of your palate. If you’re like me and never quite “got” the cheese-for-dessert thing, a bite of blue cheese paired with salted caramel and candied nuts might just make you a believer.
“I want people to be open to things, as long as there’s balance to it,” Rothbart said. Of course, even the experts can’t always satisfy the desires of a wandering palate.
“Someone once asked for a red wine to pair with pickles,” he said. Then a smile. “That’s hard to do.”
Third and Vine, 353 Third St. (between Newark and Brunswick), Jersey City, NJ 07302