Louisiana chain brings a world of wines—but little local flavor—to the Gulch 

Cheese board $15

Brie en croute $13

Molten Lava Cake $10

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc $15 glass/$60 bottle

Seldom does a restaurant's website convey the atmosphere of the establishment as well as thewineloftgulch.com portrays the ambiance of the new oenophile eatery in the Gulch. From the electronic brown-on-brown text—which makes reading it on the computer as difficult as in the dimly lit lounge—to the brooding down-tempo music looping in the background, a virtual visit to The Wine Loft is impressively faithful to the feeling of the real deal. It's as if the Nashville outpost of the Louisiana-based chain downloaded the centrally designed look and feel of the parent company, including a plush layout of comfortable sofas, metallic wallpapers, gossamer curtains and decorative mirrors, a broad roster of wines available by the bottle and glass, and a succinct menu of small dishes.

In the front section of the cavernous two-story lounge—which formerly housed Bar Twenty3—a large central tuffet surrounded by low tables and stools recalls the sculpture of Alice in Wonderland in New York's Central Park. And to some degree, we did feel like we had slipped through the looking glass when we stopped in on a couple of nights. There in the "urban-chic" and "classy" room—as the website describes the environment—we found varietals from vineyards around the world, but virtually no trace of the city we were in. That kind of dislocation—a lack of terroir, if you will—can be good and bad. It's appealing if you like to crawl out of your skin and escape your surroundings temporarily. It's less enticing if you have a penchant for local food, local flavor or local color.

On the wine side of things, the oenophiles in our group were impressed by the depth and breadth of the Loft's list, which includes 250 wines by the bottle and 80 by the glass. When two of our four selections were not actually available, our server summoned a manager to consult on acceptable alternatives and to offer tastes of wines similar to our original choices—a knowledgeable gesture that compensated for the gaps in inventory. A little while later, the manager returned, having at last located a bottle of the sauvignon blanc previously thought unavailable, and offered a complimentary taste.

Founded in 2003 out of a "desire to create a business that was recession-proof and complemented by a sophisticated interior ambiance," The Wine Loft bills itself as a pre- and post-place—i.e., a venue to launch or cap off an evening. Both our weekday and weekend visits were between 6 and 9 p.m., when we were among a small handful of guests. The loft portion of the restaurant was not yet open, and staff outnumbered diners. As a result, service was extremely attentive, if not exactly on top of the specific details of the menu.

We followed our server's enthusiastic recommendation of brie en croute, which was a predictably delicious core of molten cheese inside a buttery packet of golden phyllo dough drizzled with balsamic reduction and vanilla honey. On our visits, the evolving menu leaned heavily on puff pastry, which also appeared with escargots and with a medley of chopped shrimp and blue cheese.

Filet pistolettes, aka sliders of ground beef and blue-cheese butter, were an easy dish to share with a group and would make for a sturdy late-night sop. A charcuterie platter draped with thin cuts of salami, sopressata and mortadella was a pretty plate, anchored by a pile of sliced warm chicken sausage and ramekins of grainy mustard and assorted cornichons, caper berries and artichoke hearts.

Tender if bland shrimp scampi, served with grits, arrived much smaller than the "jumbo" shellfish promised on the menu, and on both our visits, the lamb lollipops were unavailable, though the blend of mushrooms that accompanies the lamb was available on its own as a topping for bruschetta.

Dessert of molten cake was disappointingly cooked through, with no molten chocolate oozing from the dry sponge. A quartet of cheeses included samples of fontina and smoked gouda, as well as blue with a drizzle of honey and Manchego with a sliver of sweet quince paste to balance the tang of the cheese. A basket of warm baguette slices and ramekins of spiced almonds and roasted garlic accented the board.

The 15-store Wine Loft nameplate is one of five restaurant concepts owned by Doyle Restaurant Group. The Baton Rouge-based company—which also owns Rasputin Vodka Bar and La Crêpe Nanou in Louisiana—plans to bring two additional concepts to the Gulch in 2010, including the beer-centric Brew Public Craft House and Huey's 24/7. The latter, a retro diner concept that debuted in New Orleans in 2003, will offer the Gulch round-the clock fare—if not exactly a unique taste of Nashville.

The Wine Loft is open Tuesday and Wednesday 5 p.m. to midnight and Thursday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Email arts@nashvillscene.com.


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