Food Reviews: Vinoco Wine Bar & Tapas Restaurant

VINOCO WINE BAR & TAPAS RESTAURANT
Mineola (516) 307-8056

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Why is one restaurant nearly empty while the one next door is packed? That’s not just an academic question. It happened recently in Mineola on a typically slow Tuesday night. A large, lovely, white-tablecloth spot had plenty of empty seats, while the adjacent storefront had more diners than it could accommodate. Additionally, the tiny 10-table place is loud, cramped, drafty and rather uncomfortable, while the more luxurious restaurant is spacious and serene.

The cheek by jowl, year-old Vinoco Wine Bar & Tapas Restaurant offers small plates priced from $6.75 to $13.75. A trio sampler plate goes for $17. People who order any three of nine possible selections pay a total of $25. A “Happy Sunday” three-course menu costs $20.12 and all bottles of wine are available for half price on Tuesdays (which might have partially accounted for the mob when we visited). On Thursdays, women pay half price for drinks, there’s a 20-percent discount on Monday dinners, unlimited Bellinis and Mimosas at Saturday and Sunday brunch, and an extra long happy hour, nightly.

All of this would matter little if the food wasn’t good. Fortunately, it is. It’s also creative, diverse and interesting, tending to break the sometimes-predictable Long Island restaurant mold. And it’s not a traditional tapas restaurant. Portions are larger than the dab or two often found in typical tapas hangouts, but smaller than full-sized entrées. And while tapas originated in Spain, and there are Spanish posters on the walls, Japanese, Greek and Italian touches are also at work here. (When was the last time you saw rock shrimp tempura on a tapas menu?) The eclectic array of dishes is more Manhattan than Long Island with its Asian buns, avocado-infused quinoa salad, Polish connection wrap, artichoke Parmesan salad and rice pudding empanada.

Certainly, there are some sensational restaurants on the Island and some chefs who would be stars anywhere, including the city, but adventurous foodies find fewer opportunities to sample unusual cuisine in Nassau and Suffolk. Scandinavian, Russian, Dutch, Danish, Swiss and South African restaurants and dishes, for instance, are virtually absent from the local scene.

The service at Vinoco also achieves high marks. Four patrons having difficulty mounting the high chairs at the bar are switched to a table about to order dessert. Its occupants are persuaded to change places with them (perhaps by being offered free desserts). All of this tends to make the youngish, jolly, boisterous crowd at Vinoco repeat customers. They spear quite a few cubes of roasted potatoes à la Brava dusted with smoky paprika and drizzled with a vibrant, creamy red chili pepper sauce ($8) and split two soft, seasoned meatballs capped with Asiago cheese in a rich tomato sauce ($9). Six slices of tasty chorizo flatbread ($10.50) are an ideal choice for a table of friends. The duo of sausages are two rows of sliced meat bracketing an onion escabeche atop rich creamy cannellini beans deliver admirable heft and flavor ($13.75), while the avocado-infused quinoa ($11.75) and turret of artichoke Parmesan ($12.75) salads provide a refreshing interlude. Pescadito, a stack of lightly breaded cod with a spicy guava aioli dip, is a triumph ($11.75). A hefty entrée of chicken and chorizo paella, alive with cilantro, saffron rice, peas and peppers ($17), will satisfy diners who want more bulk.

The portion-size desserts, like other courses, vary greatly. Tables of four who share dishes get just a bite each from the salads and meatballs, but a goodly quantity of the cod, potatoes and sausages. That’s true of the warm rice pudding empanada ($6.50) and a homemade bread pudding ($7.50), but less so of the small, velvety crème caramel ($7.50).

photos by stephen lang

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richard jay scholem

Richard Jay Scholem practically invented the Long Island restaurant culture through 800+ reviews of the region's eateries both on radio and in print over the last 30 years. He is a former New York Times Long Island Section restaurant reviewer, has contributed to the Great Restaurants of...magazines and Bon Vivant, authored a book, aired reviews on WGSM and WCTO radio stations, served on the board of countless community and food and beverage organizations, and received many accolades for his journalism in both print and broadcast media. He is currently available for restaurant consultation. Reach him at (631) 271-3227.