As Plan B's go, it's aces. John Zias is a guitarist. A good one, I'm told (not my beat). After years of touring with bands, following his dream, he got to one of those moments: What next? He'd been a wine retailer for years to pay the bills and supplement the music income, so he decided to combine those two passions in a restaurant.
In January he and his wife, Dana, and son, Peter "Ace" Zias, launched Cuvée 103. In a former real estate office, the build-out was major — perhaps the kind of project only a first-time restaurateur launches into with enthusiasm. The results are lovely: A big rectangular room with a long bar features gun-metal-gray walls and lushly upholstered banquettes. For entertainment on weekends, John has imported musician friends from his Berklee College of Music days and his years of touring. He himself plays a couple of times a month in the room that he says calls out for jazz.
All of this might seem like the kind of rookie labor of love on which a cynical longtime restaurant critic might not bet the farm — were it not for what's going on in the kitchen. They originally hired head chef James Fallon fresh from 3 1/2 years at the red-hot Grille 54 in Trinity. That's a place that features lively and attractive New American fare in an equally lively and attractive space to folks who are also fairly lively and attractive. Fallon stayed long enough to get sous chef Jeremy Tatarow up to speed. Tatarow has spent time in kitchens around here (the Sandpearl, Positano's) and in Seattle and Sonoma County.
There's a sophistication to the short menu that elevates it above a number of other local wine bars'. The wine list features more than 100 selections by the bottle and a range by the glass that goes from familiar $6 quaffs to rare and splurgy ones up at $30, covering the gamut of countries of origin and varietal. To accompany this, the menu offers up some expected tapas and snacks (charcuterie and cheese plates, $14 and $12), but also some unexpected and ambitious dishes drawn from the classical French canon.
Begin with a beet "carpaccio" ($7) salad that features rounds of paper-thin roasted beet topped by arugula and fluffs of goat cheese with a lovely citrus vinaigrette and a garnish of toasted walnuts, then make quick work of a rosy, tender 8-ounce filet mignon ($28) napped with a simple pan-juice mushroom sauce and set against a sinful scoop of bacon risotto and a phalanx of tender-crisp steamed asparagus. The duck confit ($18) was briefly off the menu recently (the kitchen thought it seemed too wintery), but now it's back, the lush shreds of unctuous meat set against a foil of potato and arugula hash and a sweet-puckery swirl of blackberry gastrique.
John and Ace are happy to talk wine or music as they minister to tables' needs (tables that on Tuesdays include formal tastings), but exhibit the kind of grace and assurance that usually takes restaurant folks a while to exude. Dropping off a bowl of wine-braised mussels ($10) with a squeeze of lemon, shreds of basil and passel of soft cherry tomatoes, or picking up the decimated remains of a classic, velvety vanilla creme brulee with berry compote ($5), they seem to have caught the beat and cadence of what makes a restaurant hit.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.