Urban Enoteca's 'Wine Bar' Charges an Arm and a Leg for Even the Most Uninspired Brands

The Latham Hotel's restaurant is lacking in both food and drink.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Aug. 29, 2012

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You know the moment at the end of a date, that nanosecond between the time you decide to go in for a kiss and the moment your lips actually touch for the first time? The excitement, the nerves, the unfettered potential? That’s kind of how I get right before opening the list at a wine bar I’ve never been to.

Wine bars, after all, are places where there’s ostensibly been some sort of concerted effort to assemble a collection of bottles and glasses that pique our interest, maybe challenge us a bit. We’re certainly justified in expecting a few surprises along the way as we run our eyes down the columns of reds and whites, maybe a few things we haven’t heard of before.

But reading the glass list at Urban Enoteca, off the lobby in the Latham Hotel, was the equivalent of making out with a dead fish.

Rex Goliath Cabernet for $9 a glass? (It’s listed on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board website for $6.99 a bottle!) Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio? Clos du Bois Chardonnay, for the love of all that’s holy and good in this world? Calling the selection of wines by the glass here uninspired is about as serious an understatement as positing the idea that Kanye West is just a teensy bit egotistical, or that Rep. Todd Akin isn’t quite up to date on the latest research in female reproductive biology. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these wines, but there’s also nothing terribly interesting about them, either—especially considering the fact that they’re being poured in a so-called “enoteca.”

There’s too much here that you can just as easily buy at your local state store, which violates the basic, tacit agreement that wine bars almost always have with their guests: You’ll pay a premium, but in exchange, you will have a chance to experience grapes and regions and styles that you otherwise may not have. Look at what Tria does so successfully. And Vintage. And, you know, virtually every other wine destination in the city worth going to.

So I ordered a Center City Sips promotional glass of cloying Diseno Malbec and delved into the menu itself. Surely the Italian-inspired food would come through in a way the depressing wine program hadn’t. Surely the port I’d find in this grape-y storm would be in the form of a plate of bruschetta, or a bowl of seafood stew.

Wrong again.

Tomato-basil bruschetta, in the peak of one of the best local tomato seasons we’ve had in years, could have been so much more than the soul-crushing slices of bread barely covered by cubes of red and yellow tomatoes that actually arrived. Those few tomato cubes that were present were dressed with way too much vinegar and devoid of any apparent basil. When I asked about this—and I mean, literally, there was no green on the bruschetta at all—our waiter went back to the kitchen and reported to us that the tomatoes were marinated with basil in the olive oil, so they’re infused with it.

Because, apparently, that’s what you expect when the menu notes that the dish includes “torn basil.”

Roasted chioggia beets were about as riveting as one of those Mitt Romney renditions of “America the Beautiful” from primary season. Accompaniments of generic blue cheese creme, pickled shallots, a creamy pistachio vinaigrette and micro arugula were just as forgettable. Pommes frites were dry, and the aioli riding shotgun tasted awfully close to a spruced-up Russian dressing. Crispy parmesan chicken wings were a highlight, but that’s damning them with faint praise: I wouldn’t necessarily order them again, but given the context, the tension between the saltiness of the parmesan and the sweetness of the truffle honey, they at least held my attention beyond the first bite.

“Acquacotta” soup could have come from a high-school cafeteria. The broth was pleasant and well-seasoned, but the vegetables were softer than the Muzak version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” your dentist plays in the background of his office, and the grissini criss-crossing the top of the bowl should be read as stale reminders to not go beyond them, like some sort of carb-y police tape.

Worst of all was the “rustic stew of coastal shellfish.” It arrived practically trailing cartoon odor-lines, like those wisps of smoke that followed Pepe LePew in the old Warner Bros. classics. Bland halibut, well-cooked but virtually flavorless shrimp, “Maine lobster” that was little more that the occasional shoestring of flaccid meat—all that and more came to the table in a menacing bath of unexpectedly thick tomato sauce squiggled with a Day-Glo saffron rouille whose sourness was cause for concern.

Desserts were only better insofar as they weren’t actively off-putting. The flight of cakes arrived looking for all the world like the centerpiece at a cheap wedding, each glass cube filled with a different example of the kitchen’s ineptitude even in the realm of sweets. Carrot cake was more icing than actual cake, tiramisu was boozy enough to get you intoxicated just looking at it, and strawberry shortcake tasted like those Laffy Taffy bats I used to eat as a kid. The black forest cake was better, but didn’t nearly plumb the depths of richness that it’s supposed to.

As meals go, this one was upsetting enough to make me want to drink.

Just not here.

The Latham Hotel, 135 S. 17th St. 215.563.7474. lathamhotelphiladelphia.com

Cuisine: Italian and Italian-inspired

Hours: Daily, 6:30am to midnight

Price Range: $6–$31

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Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Epices6 said... on Aug 30, 2012 at 04:04PM

“Excellent review, Brian! While the description of the food at Urban Enoteca will make me stick to beer nuts there, you are also describing the greatest problem for wine drinkers in PA (actually in the US in general, things are not much better from Seattle to New York): insane pricing. Yeah yeah, I know the licenses are expensive (another story) but serving up a line of cheap (and often cheaply made) wines and charging more per glass than the bottle price in the store, is simply unacceptable. Some of that swill should permanently be sold for $5 or under, while better wines could be $8 or $9 (not the $14-$18 often charged). How can a decent wine culture develop with prices like that, especially given the rotten price/quality ratio.
Now on their website, Urban Enoteca lists a long list of Northwest wineries that make well-made and very good wines (bubblies by Treveri, wines by Anam Cara, Helioterra, and other reputable small producers). If their price is right, I'll be there.”

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2. crackerjack said... on Sep 9, 2012 at 07:46AM

“This article makes no sense, not for someone who is supposedly in the restaurant trade, or at least supposed to understand it. The markups at this restaurant are typical for any establishment. It may be a bad wine list, but this review is full of cheap shots.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2012 at 02:52PM

“I love it when people are held accountable. Good work Brian. This place seems pretty clueless about what it's customers may know.”

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4. Alex Smith said... on Dec 3, 2013 at 06:31AM

“The wine bar concept that is discussed in the heading is the one that lured my interest and with the help of this one can easily understand about this concept.

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5. Edwards Collins said... on Jan 3, 2014 at 06:14AM

“Informative post on the wine bars! I am not exactly understand how to reach for this blog post that says for the uninspired brands.

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6. ParkerSmith said... on Jan 7, 2014 at 06:35AM

“Reading the head I haven’t got to know details about the wine bar, as wine bar is the main keyword that grabbed by attention.

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7. Raymond Smith said... on Jan 9, 2014 at 02:56AM

“For the brands it is important o get publicized and with the help of these wine bars concept I think one will get inspiration.

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