Entries in Belcourt (2)


When is the Wine List Fairly Priced?

I’ve developed a theory that helps me decide if a wine list is fairly priced: The bottom of the list should have a good selection at the price of the average meal.

I don’t much care about the top of the list. If a pizzeria wants to serve $1,000 wines, that’s fine with me. The top can go as high as the restaurant thinks it can get away with. But if the average meal is a $15 pizza and a $5 scoop of ice cream, then the cheapest wine shouldn’t be $60.

At Corton in TriBeCa, the cheapest meal is $76 prix fixe, but the wine list has two full pages of bottles under $50, and even quite a few under $40. You can also spend thousands, but the ample selection below $50 makes Corton’s wine list not just fairly priced, but generously priced.

The other night, we had dinner at Belcourt in the East Village. We loved Belcourt overall, but I found the high-priced wine list irritating.

Obviously a casual neighborhood bistro isn’t going to have the same wine list as Corton, but the wines Belcourt did have were nearly all above $50. There might have been a token red or two slightly below that figure; as I recall, they were very young wines that I wouldn’t drink even at retail prices, much less with a restaurant markup. At Belcourt, the average appetizer is around $10, and the average entrée is about $21. It should have a half-dozen to a dozen real choices below $50.

So that’s the rule I use: the heart of the bottom end of the wine list should equal the price of a typical meal for one. That means there should be real choice at that level, not just a token, and not an obscure grape or region that is out of character for the restaurant.

The upshot is that a party of 2 can have a decent meal where the food is 2/3rds of the cost, and the wine is 1/3rd. That seems fair to me.




Note: Matthew Hamilton left Belcourt in December 2011, and the restaurant closed in 2012. It was replaced by Calliope, by Waverly Inn chef Eric Korsh and his wife, Ginevra Iverson.


Matthew Hamilton is a chef you want to root for. His two previous gigs fell apart for reasons not his fault. At Uovo, he couldn’t get a liquor license. At Pair of 8’s, he arrived too late to save a restaurant already on life support.

Things are going better at Belcourt, where he’s into his second year and appears to have a solid East Village neighborhood following, supplemented by a few folks like me who are curious enough to make the trek.

He’s got a lovely space, with spectacular picture windows looking out on East 4th Street and Second Avenue. A striking old-fashioned bar, distressed mirrors, a pressed tin ceiling and an antique tile floor suggest the kind of unfancy bistro you dream about but seldom find any more.

Belcourt stayed off most of the critics’ radar. In the Times, Frank Bruni gave it the Dining Briefs treatment, noting that “this charming, happy restaurant…wants to hit your comfort-food sensors.” That’s accurate.

The menu notes with laconic modesty, “Everything that can be made in house, is.” That includes a variety of sausages, cured meats and pâtés. There’s also the usual comment about local organic farmers and organically-raised meats, which is a fixture on menus all over town.

We assume bread (served in a bucket) is home-made, along with the butter, which was soft the way we like it. A selection of the house charcuterie ($16; above right) was more than ample for two to share as an appetizer.

Prices are gentle on the pocketbook, with soups and salads at $7–9, starters $8–15, mains $12–24, and sides $5–6.

The pork chop ($24; above left) was as large as a truncheon and very good too, but the vegetables underneath it seemed dull and over-salted. My girlfriend thought the burger (above right) was one of the best she’s had in a long time. The bun, naturally, is house-made. It’s a bargain at $12 (cheese and onions $2 extra apiece), and the fries that come along with it are perfect.

The wine list is too expensive, with no reds I could trust below $50. I don’t care how high the list goes, but a restaurant at Belcourt’s overall price level needs to go a lot lower.

The food at Belcourt is very well made, service in hearty portions and at low prices. I can’t quite call it destination cuisine, but it’s a place I’m glad to have around. Our dinner here was one of the more enjoyable inexpensive meals we’ve had in a while.

“This,” my girlfriend said, “is what Secession should have been.”


Update: Belcourt has brought its wine list in line with the humble atmosphere. On a recent visit, a respectable Corbières was available at $31. That is much more like it. Bone marrow tacos ($10) are one of the strangest dishes I’ve had, but they were excellent. The pork chop (now $21) remains excellent.

Belcourt (84 E. 4th Street at Second Avenue, East Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *