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The Wine Thief: Steal Away and Enjoy It

I loved the idea of the Wine Thief the moment I heard about its imminent arrival on Elmwood; having visited there, I love it more.  First of all, it’s in one of my very favorite buildings, and no one in the 3 decades I’ve admired that corner has done for it what Wine Thief owner Dave Cooper managed.  Each gorgeous window, whether looking out or in, lends a depth of field that was not available before this incarnation.  Nothing blocks the windows but happy patrons, sitting at tables and in big overstuffed chairs, the advertisement of welcome written on their faces. 

It’s hard to tell if The Wine Thief is a wine bar that thinks it’s a restaurant or vice versa, but I would make the assessment right up front that it is successful as both, though that was not Cooper’s initial intent.  His history is steeped in wine, but as we’ll discuss further here, the right chef can turn a wine bar’s fortune toward food just as quickly as patrons catch on to the chef’s talent when they enjoy a bite while they imbibe.  
 

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Both Cooper and General Manager Sandy Stimers have a long history in wine sales, so their setting up shop at the corner of Elmwood and Bryant means that they’ve taken their cumulative knowledge off of the road and brought it to this trendy venue to share with Wine Thief patrons.  Never enough of a good thing, Stimers, in addition to managing and getting behind the bar three days per week, is also taking sommelier classes in Lewiston at Niagara on the Lake.
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The Wine Thief has a large wine cellar where, for a yearly fee and a slight additional tax, patrons can store their wine to be at the ready when they visit.  Unique to The Wine Thief, they are the only wine bar in the city of Buffalo that has a Cuvee storage system, allowing them to preserve wines in the opened bottle for up to 2 weeks.  The Cuvee’s nitrogen technology allows Cooper to serve a total of 36 wines – fresh – by the glass. 

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 “Someone may want to try a wine that they’ve heard of, without buying the whole bottle,” Cooper says.  “It may run as high as $18 per glass, but it’s an economical way to enjoy a good wine.”  
In addition to the by-the-glass choices, Cooper and Stimers offer a total of 117 wines by the bottle and 26 varieties of beer.  The best recommendation I can make about what beverage to order at The Wine Thief is this: ask Stimers, Cooper, or Chef Justin Hernandez.
Hernandez shared a bottle of his favorite, El Luchador Shiraz with us ($9.50/$38, Southern Australia).  

luchador.JPGA sucker for splashy packaging, I loved it at first sight, enjoyed the rich flavor just as well, and I was also thoroughly amused by the back story on this blog.  It was fitting that Hernandez would be a fan of this big shiraz with a Latin name and Aussie roots; the young chef grew up in an Italian/Mexican household on Buffalo’s East Side, and his concoctions are as eclectic as his upbringing in the lovely culture cocktail his parents afforded him.

It’s no surprise to me then, that food sales account for 44 percent of The Wine Thief’s business, though it wasn’t what Cooper was expecting when he opened.  Hernandez schooled at the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute, but made his way into the best kitchens in town, starting with Oliver’s in his junior year of high school, albeit as a dishwasher.  
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But Hernandez was a dishwasher with an insatiable curiosity about the culinary aspects of his work space, and he made it a point to get to work early so he could watch very closely as the chefs worked their magic–and he learned.  After PCI, Hernandez went on to Park Lane and Papaya, and was thrilled to get the gig in the kitchen at The Wine Thief; he thanks his employer with every great dish that leaves his kitchen and makes its mark.
Hernandez says that his three most popular items are probably the pizzas that he tops with a spicy/sweet sauce, the duck tacos (with yellow rice, pigeon peas, poblanos and fresh salsa), and the chicken wings of his own recipe that have a Meyer lemon and ginger glaze.
On the evening we were there, we tried the Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza for 2 ($12), which made a great snack/appetizer.  Next we had the Seared Scallops ($19), served over a bed of coconut and lime risotto (to perfection), with sugar-cured cucumber coulis.  They were fantastic!
The tropical flavor suited the dish well and was another example of the style boundaries Hernandez crosses over, including Latin, Asian and Mediteranian.
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The Grilled Rack of Lamb ($20), with mint whipped potatoes (OMG!) and blackberry melba made with Nero D’Avola (a Sicilian grape wine), were charred crusty on the very edges and as tender and juicy as could be throughout–delicious!
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For dessert, we tried the crowd favorite triple-layer chocolate cake, but then Hernandez showed up with something he’d decided to make on a whim while shopping the market that day.  The result was Peach Melba’s wealthier and better looking cousin, made with roasted peaches, star anise, cinnamon, white port, and whole-bean vanilla ice cream.  You have to love a young chef with this sort of imagination.
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After dinner, we coaxed Dave Cooper to have a seat and chat for a minute.  He brought with him a Graham Beck Chenin Blanc, Gamekeeper’s Reserve ($7.50/$30, South Africa). For those who enjoy a white with a touch of sweetness, this is it.  And it paired nicely with the peach and vanilla flavors we’d just experienced.

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Cooper said The Wine Thief is an idea he had about 3 years ago, having moved back to Buffalo in 2002.  “There are plenty of good wines in Buffalo,” Cooper said.  “We just like to make it easier to get a good education.  There’s no better way than to sit at the bar and enjoy a flight of wines.”  
Cooper is easy in this setting, and the overall atmosphere is as smooth and light as a good zinfandel.  It’s a great place to visit, linger and learn.
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The Wine Thief
431 Elmwood at Bryant
716.332.2929

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