When Bacchus Wine Bar and Restaurant opened in 2002, diners by a window could enjoy views of customers sidling into the porn store across the street and young people exploring the boundaries of alcohol poisoning filling the sidewalks.
The drinking hasn’t stopped, but the scruffy crowd moved on. The addition of more food-focused restaurants, well-monied travelers at new hotels nearby, and the Delaware North building soaring over the western skyline have changed the scene.
Besuited young professionals with razor cuts, color-coordinated wedding gaggles, and snow-haired couples in their theater-going finest predominated the recent night I stopped by for dinner. The restaurant has grown up, too.
Chef-owner Brian Mietus has assembled a crack crew of culinarians led by Soichiro Kimura, the first Bacchus sous chef to be named in print on its menu. Kimura’s flashes of international flavor gives the Theater District’s fine-dining blockbuster even more depth of field.
The canopies that kept the front room dim are gone now, letting street-side window tables bathe in sunlight. The courtyard out back has been spiffed up with an umbrella-like canopy. The dining room, done in copper, caramel, black tile and goldenrod, hasn’t changed much. When it’s full, gusts of din can make conversation challenging.
Its wine list, one of the thickest in town, is annotated with an index, descriptions and helpful pairing suggestions, plus a section of under-$40 bottles.
Bread service of baguette and a loaf studded with briny Mediterranean olives was accompanied by what the served called the Bacchus bomb, a glass of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh garlic, parsley and chile flake upended onto a plate with a flourish.
That sort of small-caliber pizzazz extended to the arrival of soup. Servers poured steaming pitchers of roasted garlic bisque and cream of asparagus (both $9) at the table. Velvety asparagus potage joined crisped prosciutto, scallions and crème fraiche in one bowl, for one luxurious spoonful after another. Sweet-savory roasted garlic was punctuated with the golden crunch of garlic chips.
Dish after dish exhibited dialed-in technique and exquisitely metered ingredients. A portobello mushroom salad ($12) delivered all the charm of a spinach-with-hot-bacon-dressing in a spiffier package. The roasted mushroom cap had been layered lightly with goat cheese, topped with bacon vinaigrette dressed spinach, and an oozy poached egg. The assembly was crowned with a haze of fried potato threads.
A small plate of seared scallops ($20) brought three huge molluscs, big as yo-yos and wearing dabs of jammy onion marmalade, on parsnip puree and tomato beurre blanc for a fruity, restrained acid richness.
Impeccably fried calamari and rock shrimp, tender seafood bites minimally dressed with sweet chile sauce, were lightened up with a foundation of lettuce, crowned with pea shoots and carrot curls.
The gnocchi mac and cheese ($13) proved that spa cuisine was in no danger of taking over. Tender dumplings were presented in a truffled cheese matrix, topped with a umami quilt made of browned cheese, meaty mushrooms and prosciutto.
Here, meat and potatoes means prime ribeye ($38) crusted with Gorgonzola, butter and breadcrumbs broiled to a crisp, kept out of the pool of merlot demiglace by the caramelized fingerling potato, bacon and spinach salad.
A vegetarian entrée, asparagus ravioli ($24), was the last bite of spring, with First Light goat cheese, spinach, portobello mushroom, and garlic chips for crunch in a citrus beurre blanc. Mietus said the restaurant happily serves vegan diners with notice at reservation.
Fruit with duck is a time-honored pairing, but Bacchus harnessed the musky perfume of perfectly ripe mango. Roast duck breast ($36), its fat expertly crisped, was fanned out under a salad of supple sliced mango, red onion, bell pepper and arugula, brightened with a yuzu vinaigrette. Pomegranate anchored the demiglace. A beet risotto with duck confit was properly cooked but dim in flavor compared to the neighboring fireworks.
The biggest bang was a chunk of pan-bronzed halibut ($36), set to a racy symphony of big flavors. Coconut basmati rice, topped pungent roasted pineapple curry sauce, whose intoxicating spice bouquet beat out its afterglow of spiciness. Green beans, carrots, and peashoots kept it fresh, while a topknot of pickled sesame chiles, with shallots, scallions and sesame seeds, gave it one last punch.
Our unflappable server offered useful suggestions, cleaned the tabletop deftly between courses, kept our meal proceeding smoothly.
House-made desserts ($8) included a silky, vanilla-seed-speckled crème brulee, a date-studded sticky toffee cake with wondrously buttery caramel sauce, and a Jameson tiramisu whose whisky whisper escaped me.
There are fine-dining restaurants that gives diners chocolates with the bill. Bacchus gives customers permission to leave their car in the valet lot, and get it after the show. To some theatergoers, nothing could be sweeter.
You want restaurants to feed and water you, but the best ones make you feel like they care. That’s how Bacchus found its place at the heart of the Theater District.
Bacchus Wine Bar & Restaurant – 10 plates (out of 10)
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: appetizers, $8-$20; entrees, $24-$42.
Atmosphere: bustle that can rise to a roar.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: extensive offerings.