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The ai3-designed interiors give a New York sensibility to this Marietta outpost.

A Full Glass

by Wendell Brock | Photography by Sarah Dorio | The Atlantan magazine | March 27, 2014

As far as wine bars go, this one is like a gentle whisper. It only seats 40 people, and its front entrance is so subtle that it tends to get lost in the bustle of its leggier, full-size sister restaurant next door. The fact that it is so secluded, intimate and hidden makes it a natural place to have a first date. That way, if the feeling strikes, you can sit for hours, feast on what are surely some of the best tapas in Atlanta and lose yourself in flights of lush Spanish reds. If the mood sours, you can still have one amazing glass of vino you can’t find anywhere else, nibble on a bowl of authentic piquillo peppers, dismissively flick the salt dust off your fingers and be gone.

I am talking about Stem Wine Bar, the luxurious envelope of a room that chef and owner Doug Turbush recently opened next to Seed Kitchen & Bar, his wonderfully easygoing contemporary American restaurant that anchors a corner in the Merchant’s Walk area of East Cobb. When Turbush and company uncorked Stem, a dark and cozy space next to the bright and buzzy Seed, they did it quietly and without much fanfare, a gesture that befits the intimate personality of this special spot. Yet it’s clear they invested much time, thought and loving detail into conjuring a perfect wedding of lusty Mediterranean flavors and brilliant wines to match.

Stem—designed by ai3 so that every inch of wooden cabinetry serves a purpose—is right on so many levels. With its shimmering glassware and sleek minimalism, it reminds me of Tokyo whiskey bars, where men keep their bottles under lock and key; and posh Manhattan watering holes, where neighborhood folk go for leisurely drinks and banter. I love the ambience here, but I also love the food—snacks and small plates that pack the rustic flavors of Spain.

On the first of what I hope will be many assignations here, I decided to let the staff hook me up with sommelier Jason Raymond’s wines. After an unctuous board of cheese and cured meat nibbles, we moved on to tuna crudo—a stack of chopped raw fish studded with olives, tomato, onion and mint. Washed down with a light and astringent Twomey sauvignon blanc, the flavors were exceptionally bright and vibrant. Spanish octopus a la plancha was tossed with Marcona almonds, Spanish piquillo pepper relish and arugula—and grilled so that the smaller tentacles were crispy, while the fatter bites were nice and juicy. (It came with a pour of Spanish godello, perfumed with citrus and melon tones—a nice new grape for me.) We finished off this seafood spree with Gulf shrimp al ajillo, made the classic way and floating in a crock of bubbling hot olive oil pepped up with chiles and a ton of garlic. After those crispy-tailed, succulent crustaceans are gone, you’ll want to take a piece of bread, dip it in the oil and slurp back a sip of Gramona Gessami—a lovely floral blend from the Penedes region along the coast near Barcelona. Heaven.

While Turbush and Chef de Cuisine Brendan Keenan have a remarkable affinity for the briny flavors of the sea, they also have an exquisite touch for meats. (In fact, when I was at the restaurant, Turbush was off sharpening his butcher skills with an intense master session at Fleisher’s in Brooklyn.) Chorizo-stuffed medjool dates, wrapped in bacon and bathed in smoky tomato sauce, get my vote for best dish of the year. Washed down with oaky tempranillo, they are a revelation. I was also wild about the baked piquillos—stuffed with short rib meat and topped with goat cheese. A dish this intense and rich cries out for zinfandel, and the one from California’s Fritz Underground Winery rocked it.

Finally, don’t think about getting out of here without a bite of the salted caramel flan. The custard sits in an aromatic sauce of orange, cinnamon and vanilla—the spicy hints elevating the sweetness to another dimension. Dr. Loosen’s Riesling Eiswein was a brilliantly paired side sip and made me realize that I don’t indulge in dessert wines often enough. More, please.

At the end of it all, I couldn’t be happier with my first date with Stem. Though the attention to detail is astonishing, it maintains a relaxed and welcoming attitude. A wine bar with seriously good food, daring drinks and a staff that is smart and informed but never stuffy, it’s just the sort of place chefs will want to go after work—for the honesty and integrity of the cooking, and the intimacy and anonymity of the room. While so many speakeasy-style joints around town feel forced, this place is the genuine article. Buen provecho. Stem’s a gem.

The Beverage Program
Drinks are a big part of the experience. Bar Manager Chris McNeill is one of the best (formerly of Bluepointe), and he’s put together a delicious list of classics and refreshing wine-based cocktails.

The Vibe
The style is relaxed. Guys will want to wear good jeans and nice shirts; ladies should dress as comfortable, or as elegant, as they want. The light is bedroom soft and flattering.

New for Spring
Get ready for charred baby Vidalias with marcona almond romesco and Georgia olive oil, Georges Bank scallops with salsa verde and piquillo and farm egg with creamy sunchoke.

Stem Wine Bar
1311 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta,
678.214.6888

Hours: Sun.-Thu., 4-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 4-11pm