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Wine and dine Have a little something to eat while you imbibe

The Wine Thief, as the handsome sign above the Venetian gothic windows clearly proclaim, is a brand new restaurant devoted to many people's two favorite things: wine and bistro-style eating.

Open for less than a month at the corner of Elmwood and Bryant, the space has been handsomely redone. It has slate floors, glassed-in wine storage, restrained decor and your choice of seating as you happily imbibe. Deep chairs flank a good-looking fireplace; there's a bar (with muted flat-screen TV), and there are tables.

Food here is obviously designed to set off the wines. The wine list is extensive, with a good concentration of European and West Coast varieties (as far as I could tell, no New York State options). You can spend around $20 all the way up to more than $100 per bottle; $6 and up per glass.

Each section of the list ("sparkling," "pinot noir" and "alternative," which seems to contain non-French, non-American varieties as well as those made from other-than-classic grapes) has at least one wine by the glass available. We, for instance, opted for glasses of Oregon pinot noir, seldom seen on lists hereabouts (and, if it is listed, places often turn out to be out of it). Cloudline Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley came in at $9 per glass and was beautifully served in an attractive glass. It was a propitious beginning.

We tried a variety of edibles from a menu still titled "Summer 2008." The spiced pear salad ($8) would be a generous serving for one and a cute little teaser serving for two. But any way you want to divide it, it's wonderful. Sliced roast fresh pears, spiced gently with cinnamon and but a hint of coriander rested on a bed of arugula and frisee. Bits of goat cheese and asiago were scattered throughout, with a few pine nuts for crunch. And the orange and cinnamon vinaigrette was applied judiciously.

Then there was the crisp, thin-crusted fire-roasted tomato pizza ($10), cut into the expected triangles but then lined up for service on a rectangular dish. This was margherita-style pizza with a difference -- made a little upscale with the addition of tomato vodka sauce, fresh buffalo mozzarella and basil. Other available pizzas include chicken and artichoke ($13, with lemon-seasoned oil and capers) and a Chef's Special that changes daily (on our visit, it involved asparagus and prosciutto).

A really hungry person, like the Companion, might go to the "Small Plate" section of the menu. He opted for the three-point lamb rack for $18. Was it a huge portion? Obviously not. But those three ribs were cooked accurately to medium-rare and set off by a good heap of parsnip puree -- parsnips, we discovered, taste even better when paired with lamb. And did I forget the mint pesto accompaniment? It was not as sweet as mint jelly, thank goodness.

I went for the duck tacos ($12) and found it more than enough for dinner. Here, the tortilla shell was stuffed full of juicy duck pieces, set off with Monterey Jack and just-spicy-enough salsa.

As befits a proper wine bar, the Wine Thief makes a cheese plate available. Choose from an ever-changing list of varieties, some of which you probably have not tasted before. What can I say? Do not expect Velveeta.

And there are soups, such as seafood bouillabaisse with lobster dainties, mussels, corn, potatoes and scallops in a good-sized bowl for $9.

Other small plates include couscous-stuffed peppers with fresh herbs and golden raisins ($10), or pinot noir and ginger poached salmon with vegetable slaw ($18).

A more conservative wine drinker might opt for the five-ounce sirloin filet with au gratin potatoes and caramelized onion relish ($18). Also available are grilled prawns ($13), seasoned with Southwest spices, lime and garlic, served with rice pilaf.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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THE WINE THIEF

3 stars (Out of 4)*

WHERE: 431 Elmwood Ave. (332-2929; www.thewinethiefbuffalo.com). There's a good selection of wines and light fare at this handsome restaurant. Your choice of wines by bottle or glass, as well as soups, salads, small pizzas or small entrees. Beer and wine only. American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Duck tacos

NEEDS WORK: Food is of good quality.

PRICE RANGE: Soups from $7; small plates from $10; pizzas for two from $10. Wines from about $20 through the $100s.

SERVICE: Excellent

HOURS: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Difficult

PARKING: On the street.

*RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit -- including service, ambience, innovation and cost -- with greatest weight given to quality of the food.

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