Although I'd love to report that SoHo's new wine bar, Cork, was packed at a tasting this week, it wasn't. But not due to a lack of desirous customers — the City of Tampa won't allow the new hotspot to have more than 50 people inside at one time. In an effort to curb the youngster drunkfest on hoppin' South Howard, the City is forcing management of the three- week-old establishment to jump through upteen hoops. Per the fire department, the updated and remodeled former gelateria (La Casa Dolce) can hold up to 150 but it won't be until probably the end of the month that Cork can welcome the world.
General Manager Dave Kendall, a restaurant and wine industry veteran of 27 years, is understandably frustrated. Co-owner Barry O'Connor of MacDinton's and Kendall spent countless hours (and dollars) getting the concept right. They hope to fill the void of downscale, casual bars in this party district, where people can chill and not be bombarded with live music or a crew of drunken revelers.
18 wines by the glass (whites, reds, sparklings that will change quarterly) range from $7 to $14, decidedly too high for the average value-conscious, looking-to-get-hammered individual frequently found up and down Howard Ave. Attempting to lure the 20- and 30-somethings living in pricey houses and townhomes in the Hyde Park area, Kendall's philosophy is offering "good quality wines at a value price." He's backing up those words with the most innovative and intriguing part of Cork: Affordable bottle prices — decidedly less than other restaurants who often mark up three times wholesale. For instance, a bottle of Flora Springs Merlot, which normally retails for around $20 a bottle, is $29 on his list. Here's another added bonus: Cork has a package license, so you can walk out with a full bottle for $5 less than on the wine list.
The wine selection is a smattering of the usual suspects (Penfold's, Clos du Bois, Rodney Strong) mixed with a few exciting options like Wakefield Unoaked Chardonnay ($7), Artezin Zinfandel (the correct spelling - the list was riddled with typos) ($10) and Stanley Lambert Choc-a-bloc Belgian chocolate infused Australian tawny port ($8). They sell 138 bottles available currently and Kendall hopes to build that to 200+ by February. Although the list is a slight departure from the generic choices at many other restaurants, I'd like to see some more esoteric, adventurous labels that push wine consumers a bit out of their comfort zones. But perhaps economic times prevent that kind of daring.
In the coming months, General Manager Kendall will be bringing in winery principals and winemakers for special events and tastings, like John Komes from Flora Springs and Bob Bettancourt from Toad Hall.
To appeal to the wine averse, Cork offers 14 beers on tap, from Abita Purple Haze to Chimay, Guinness and Lindeman's Framboise. No Bud or Miller in sight. And for food, the "Italian style tapas" are somewhat limited, with marinated olives, a variety of pizzas, charcuterie, cheeses and other small plates.
I asked a few first-timer 20 and 30-something guests at Cork their initial reaction. They found the atmosphere much warmer than Taps, the stainless-steel-laden, pretty people wine bar in downtown Tampa, and were impressed with Cork's "friendly and knowledgeable" staff. They found the wines by the glass list limited and suggested that all wines carry a description since the unfamiliar selections are, well, unfamiliar. But they discovered that Cork will offer tastes of all wines by the glass if you ask.
Parking isn't as much of a nightmare as you might anticipate — they have valet parking with around 60 spaces within a couple of blocks.
Bottle list highlights:
Murphy Goode Wildcard Claret, $36
Regusci Twenty Bench Cabernet, $32
Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay, $33
Devil's Lair Fifth Leg, $27
Peachy Canyon Petite Sirah, $30
Arancio Nero d'Avola, $21
406 South Howard Ave.