Pardon the pun, but to experience the range of Palo Alto watering holes in a nutshell, just head to the corner of Birch Street and California Avenue. On one side, there are glasses of Barolo and Bordeaux being poured at the 5-month-old Calave Wine Bar. On the other resides the venerable Antonio's Nut House, home of margaritas at rock-bottom prices and complimentary peanuts served by a gorilla.
Calave marks the fourth wine bar in the city and the first outside downtown. What the term "wine bar" really means, nobody knows, except that there is a bar and wine is the emphasis. Some wine bars, like Gravity on Emerson Street, have menus and service that blur the line between bar and restaurant. Others, like Calave, barely have space for more than a refrigerator and toaster. The most ambitious item at Calave is the serviceable but not special turkey, avocado and cranberry-mayonnaise panino ($12).
That's too bad, because Calave is such a fun addition to Palo Alto, and a small creative boost in the kitchen could make a significant difference. How about avocado on toast, fresh produce salads and smoked fish?
As for that faithful wine bar stand-by, the cheese and charcuterie plate ($25), it offered a decent selection of prosciutto, salami and the usual cheeses like Asiago and brie, but the choices were uninspired. Meanwhile, peanut butter sandwiches get an entire section on the menu. You heard me right. Peanut butter meets French onion soup with Gruyere and sweet onions in one sandwich ($11). It's actually far better than you'd imagine. As is the case with all the sandwiches at Calave, the fillings are dominated by the bread; the kitchen needs to work on proportions.
Outside of sandwiches, a perky romaine lettuce-based Caesar salad ($9) arrived perfectly dressed but suffered from being served in a gummy, jaw-tiring Parmesan bowl. A better bet are the "share a bites" ($6-$8). These selections let you snack on olives, superb popcorn with a spot-on kiss of truffle oil and -- my personal snacking downfall -- orange-coriander spiced mixed nuts with distinct cumin overtones, served in elegant glass bowls. Desserts include a creme brulee and Cocoa Vinoso chocolate truffles from the San Francisco's Bridge Brands Chocolate.
This summer, owner Lori Romero created Calave by splitting her hair salon in two because she saw a need for a wine bar in this part of town. As it turns out, the space at 299 California Ave. housed the Mayfield Brewery from 1886 to 1920 (you can guess what historical event led to its demise). Four beers are on tap at Calave, but with around 40 wines by the glass, it's clear where the emphasis now lies.
On the wine front, I'll recommend the superb Robert Hall Viognier from Paso Robles; the slick, fruit-edged Pence Ranch Santa Barbara pinot noir; and the menu's wildcat: the plush, zesty Tuscan-style Merlot-Sangiovese "Lost Weekend" by Beauregard Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of six wines served on tap. If it's your first time at Calave, go for the "P Yes Pinot" flight or the sparkling wine flight served in lovely coupes instead of flutes (both $20).
The flights bring up two vital points. First, good luck fitting two flights and any food on a tiny table for two. It won't work. Second, service was almost always excellent, except for the up-selling sometimes done to get guests to order the $25 European reds flight. In fact, the European reds description card was presented and explained to my table not once but twice before the regular menu, as if it was the lone option that night. The first time it happened, I rolled my eyes. The second time, it felt like a condo timeshares presentation.
Calave could stand to introduce a few more unique grapes and get away from the tried-and-true Californian-French-Italian terroir. Orange wine? Slovenian wine? These are key to appeasing local wine geeks. More rotation, too, wouldn't hurt, since the choices are basically the same today as when I first visited in July. It's time to bring a Palo Alto start-up mentality to the wine list. Balance both the comfort and risk, and Calave will soon be the leader of the pack among Palo Alto wine bars.
I've heard many people say Calave would fit right in in London or New York. They're right. The 35-seat space exudes a sophisticated, urban feel, headlined by a U-shaped bar with rows of wine glasses hanging above, evoking a chandelier. Black and white alternate as primary color schemes, giving everything a glamorous, Roaring '20s atmosphere. I half expected Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable to stroll in. Seating areas vary from a high communal table to a cozy, low-slung sofa to snug tables with tremendously comfortable "cigar" chairs. Outside seating expands the capacity, which is often needed at happy hour.
The Palo Alto community already embraces Calave for what it is: a rare California Avenue place that's open until midnight Thursday through Saturday. Even if the menu doesn't take another leap, I'll come back for that popcorn and another glass of the Duval Leroy Brut Champagne.
Calave Wine Bar
299 S. California Ave., Palo Alto