Monday night is — unofficially, anyway —Geek Night at Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen. On Mondays, the dining room and part of the bar at this cozy downtown hangout are taken over by a cadre of lanky young men. Sometimes they sit at the same table. They seem acquainted with one another, but their interactions are mostly limited to their laptops.
"They're all into Web development and computer coding and that kind of thing," explained our server on the Monday I dined at Tannin with my friend Carol Ann.
For most of our meal, we were the only diners in the room — and Tannin is a big place — not glowing in laptop light. Carol counted six men sitting at the bar, all tapping on keyboards. At the table next to ours were four in shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts gazing at their screens, mute and hypnotized. The geeks all sipped from goblets of red wine. The Wi-Fi is free here, you see, and the vintage bottles on Mondays are buy-one, get-one-free.
Modern technology plays an important role at Tannin, which is named for the astringent chemical compound found in the skin, stems and seeds of wine grapes. The system for decanting wine uses nitrogen and is generally as high-tech and complex as something James Bond's enemies would use to attain world domination. And the primary investor in the six-month-old bistro is Major Baisden, of the downtown firm Iris Data Services.
The restaurant looks pretty much like it did as the ill-fated JP Wine Bar, which formerly occupied the space. The wine list here is extensive, and Tannin still offers a smart cocktail selection. But the food is more interesting and accessible since the return of executive chef Brian Aaron, a former JP Wine Bar chef who left Kansas City for a couple of years to oversee a restaurant kitchen in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
JP was sleek, stylish and urban, a place designed to attract loft dwellers and their hipster brethren. Tannin could do the same with its cheese courses and icy martinis, but it's distinctly quirky. In fact, there's something almost quixotic about Tannin, which connects more easily with the Crossroads than with its more immediate neighbor, the Power & Light District.
After three visits to the restaurant, I'm not convinced that anyone at Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen has figured this out yet, and that's probably a good thing. Unlike the prefab concept restaurants in the P&L, Tannin has the latitude to evolve into something as special as it is different.
The staff working the front of the house is laid-back but not at the expense of friendliness or accommodation. Or personality. One server is a former musician, another a tautly muscled soccer player, another a sexy nursing student who wants to move to Spain. Mix these characters up with the Monday-night geek or the gorgeous real-estate blonde (whom I saw attempt a patio seduction one night), and you have the ingredients for an engaging sitcom.
Meanwhile, there's real satisfaction in Aaron's small plates, supple soups, artfully composed salads and creative main dishes. He permits a certain amount of artistic license in his kitchen, and the presentation of some dishes might change on a whim or on the availability of certain ingredients. The Missouri beet salad I tried one night, for example, was put in front of me with an apology. "This isn't the usual presentation," the server said before I made him stop. (The unusual is almost always more telling.) In this case, Aaron had replaced baby beets with paper-thin slices of the larger deep-purple variety, which he scattered with lacy shaved radish, tart segments of fresh orange, chunky squares of brie and crunchy candied walnuts. The contrasting flavors and textures proved luscious.
Equally lovely was the summer salad of locally grown heirloom tomatoes — large and tiny, red and orange and purple — all heaped together and splashed with a well-aged balsamic vinegar and a jumble of arugula, and topped with a dollop of herbed goat cheese.
At this same meal, one of Aaron's cooks came up with a different presentation for the parmesan-crusted trout. I didn't ask how the entrée was normally executed, but this presentation featured a squat stack of boneless-trout squares — the exterior deliciously crispy and the flesh flaky and moist — perched on a salad of warm fingerling potatoes and Swiss chard discreetly tossed in a tangy caper vinaigrette.
Quail, pork chops and a grilled Kansas City strip are on the dinner menu, but I was needing something soothing and less expensive after a stressful day: roasted chicken. The free-range breast here is exactly the kind of succulent bird — buttery and moist and deeply satisfying — that I dream about. That day, however, it was served atop one of my least favorite vegetables: Brussels sprouts. Aaron's sprouts are served in a deconstructed mode, the curly green petals scattered in a bright, leafy pile. Fragrant with bacon and a sassy herb jus, they almost changed my mind. Almost.
Tannin's 8-ounce Wagyu beef burger might be my new favorite glamour burger in the city. It's tucked into a yeasty onion bun and topped with an excellent smoky cheddar and a slice of crispy bacon. To complement all that flesh, I ordered the tempura asparagus: a plate of cross-hatched stalks still hot from flash-frying in a feathery batter. The feta-and-pita starter is outnumbered and outbrined by its accompanying bowl of olives. Better to have the extraordinary pommes frites — the real thing, fried twice until exquisitely crispy. (The bland truffle aioli needs to go, though. Ask for the punchier chipotle version, a great improvement.)
The vegetarian with whom I had lunch at Tannin said his soup — chopped mushrooms in a translucent mahogany broth — was too earthy. I was too busy wrapping triangles of grilled pita bread around little feta squares (skipping most of the olives) to pay much attention.
There's a single vegetarian entrée on the current Tannin menu, and it looks more enticing than it tastes: a timbale of lemony couscous dressed up with a chapeau of sautéed spinach and oyster mushrooms. The plate is drizzled with an intensely sweet balsamic reduction and a roasted-red-pepper coulis that's a divine shade of Mandarin-red but conveys no heat. Together, they lend a zest that further muffles the couscous' already quiet citrus flavor.
Aaron started his culinary career while he was still in high school, cooking at the old Sahara Café on Metcalf. That first experience helped inspire his most offbeat lunch dish: a Middle Eastern shawarma sandwich. It's a terrific version, with grilled-chicken pieces squeezed into a thick, soft pita with hummus, zatar, cucumbers, onion and tomato. And it shows that Aaron's menu is all over the map.
But that's part of Tannin's appeal. Depending on what you order here, it's a business-district wine bar or a sophisticated snack shop or a formal dinner destination. And for now, outside of oenophiles and technophiles, it's still a bit of a secret. Get here before the food geeks storm the place.