As executive chef at Carnivale, Mark Mendez was like the indie filmmaker who suddenly gets the assignment to direct a big summer blockbuster. He used his position to be a supporter of local farms, and filled his specials menu with food close to his heart and to the authentic traditions of Latin cuisine. More people probably first heard the names of artisanal farmers like Michelle Dietzler and Swan Creek at Carnivale than anywhere else.
But he also knew that the massive Fulton Street pan-Latin restaurant operated by a logic of its own. And that if you wanted to move a bunch of skirt steak, nothing would make that happen like an enormous side of cheesy mashed potatoes, the likes of which are rarely seen in the Mesoamerican wild.
Uva— “grape” in Spanish— is the wine bar Mendez and his sommelier wife Liz (they met at Carnivale) will open in early fall in the long-ago Rushmore space on Lake Street. And it will be the smaller, more personal place that was in their minds while they fed the margarita-swilling hordes at Carnivale. They’re great talkers (as we learned when we interviewed Mark for this video), so we met them for lunch at J.P. Graziano’s, an old school Italian purveyor on Randolph Street, to hear all about their shared vision for wine and food. We’ll start with the food, and conclude with wine tomorrow.
So what’s the idea behind Uva?
LIZ: We’re calling it “Spanish cuisine, worldly wine.”
MARK: The food is going to be really simple. We want it to be affordable, a place where you can have a glass of wine and something to nibble without going broke. I think that’s important for the neighborhood—
LIZ: —that you can go to a place without spending a lot of money.
MARK: Yeah. There are going to be things for $3 and $4.
LIZ: And glasses of wine for $6 and $7.
Is it Spanish food? Is it tapas?
MARK: I don’t know that I want to use that word. Because it makes you think of goat cheese in tomato sauce and things like that. I mean, okay, we’ll probably have patatas bravas. But I also want to do things like tripe and morcilla [blood sausage]. We’ll have a paella, but not the typical paella you get in the midwest—
LIZ: What’s the typical paella?
MARK: Seafood. But we’ll do something very different with it.
I want to get away from pork. And from salmon, tuna and halibut. I’d love to get more into oily fish. I don’t know if I can sell them, but I want to have mackerel on the menu, I want to cure our own sardines. I want to make our own bacalao.
At Carnivale we used black cod for bacalao. In Spain they give you these nice fatty pieces from the middle, but if you buy bacalao in this country, unless you really push for it you wind up with the skinny little end pieces of cod that are, like, dry and salty. Maybe we’ll use something totally different and sustainable for it, like Great Lakes whitefish. I mean, after you’ve soaked it in a pound of salt for three days and cooked it in milk and garlic, you don’t know what fish it is anyway (laughs).
Presumably cheese will be part of the menu, too?
LIZ: Oh yeah. We’re going to have a cheese bar.
MARK: Like a sushi bar. Have you been to Bar Boulud in New York? He has a salami bar, with these great meats in a display case and a chef there, cutting you little pieces. So we’re going to do that with cheese. Maybe just five cheeses at first, but really great ones.
LIZ: Cheese and wine were meant to go together.
MARK: You know, I love the chefs who make these elaborate things, but I don’t feel like I’m smart enough to do that. I like serving really good, simple things.
At Carnivale one time we had a big chef come in and everybody in the kitchen was like, what are you going to send him? And I just sliced some Iberico ham and sent it out to him. And he said, that’s how you do it. The simplest thing is the best.
So when’s it going to open?
LIZ: We’re hoping late September, early October—
MARK: Let’s say early fall. The space doesn’t need that much, it shouldn’t take too long.
LIZ: Tomato season. We’re going to open when the tomatoes are good.
MARK: I looooove tomatoes. That’s what I tell the farmers at the market. I’ll open when your tomatoes and melons get really good.