Simmer Down

Milford’s 20 Brix needs to hold back so it can rise above.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

Four people order four different meals, each with two courses—eight separate plates of food. You enjoy the synergy of wine with food, but there are a lot of contrasting flavors and textures—a creamy bisque, a bruschetta topped with woodsy roasted mushrooms and a baked egg, a cheddary risotto, and a salad of heirloom tomatoes—that will soon be dropped in front of you. Plus, your dinner companions have different palates and varying levels of oenophilia (including the friend of a friend whose fondness for Sutter’s Home white zinfandel is driven by her grad school budget and sweet tooth). A bottle of white for the first course followed by a bottle of red for the second is a conventional formula, moving from lighter bodied to fuller bodied, and this works to a point. But the possibility for something distinct—a glass that brings out the flavors of both the food and the wine—is an opportunity lost in most restaurants. At 20 Brix Wine Bar, Clay Mitchell, the general manager and wine steward, has the skills and the wine list to deliver thoughtful pairings, but the menu occasionally gets in his way.

Brix is a winemaking term that refers to the measure of sugar in the grapes. A level of 20 brix, or 20 percent sugar, means a light and lively wine like the 2009 Austrian Grüner Veltliner, which Mitchell has recommended with the chef’s roasted cauliflower velouté. The measure of 20 brix might also describe what the restaurant wants to be: a neighborhood joint with higher aspirations.

This intimate restaurant shares Milford’s historic district with an eclectic retail mix—expensive antiques, old coins, vintage clothing, outdoor fountains, guns, cupcakes, and printing services, plus casual family restaurants, bars, and a church. The variety takes as much from Milford’s small-town roots as it does from the neighboring communities that help support it, some of the wealthiest in the region. Located on a prominent corner, 20 Brix fills a handsome brick and multi-paned-window structure that once held the neighborhood barber shop. When that burnt to the ground in 2004 it was rebuilt to its original splendor. An outdoor terrace lined with umbrella-topped tables and planters runs down one side of the building, evoking the charm of a European bistro as easily as that of Midwest America.

Inside, the room is warm, candlelit, and dressed in urban chic. Chandeliers cast a glow on dark wood linen-set tables and olive green walls, hung with an unusual mix of pastel abstracts and bright graffiti prints. The soundtrack swings wildly from avant-garde jazz to ’70s rock. A portion of the room is carved out for a sizeable retail wine shop just in case you should decide that a bottle of the Fattoria di Petrognano chianti you married to the chef’s risotto needs to come home with you.

The chef who dreamed up that risotto is Paul Barraco, and his seasonal menu mixes Mediterranean influences with homespun choices—a juxtaposition of small-town favorites and worldly flavors. The menu reads well and conveys the chef’s enthusiasm for local purveyors: mushrooms from “Chris” (a neighbor down the block who grows such varieties as Hen of the Woods, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms in his basement); and tomatoes, herbs, and eggs from “Sallie” (Ransohoff, who has become something of a celebrity farmer over the past decade for her hundred-plus heirloom varieties and chemical-free growing methods), stand proudly with chicken from Tanglewood Farms in Indiana and cheeses from Kenny’s Farmhouse in Kentucky. Barraco graduated from the Midwest Culinary Institute, kicked around a few area restaurants (Tousey House in Burlington, the O’Bannon Creek Golf Club in Loveland), and ran his own catering company before taking the helm of 20 Brix. He peppers his menu with some marvelous food—emphasis on the word some. Because while his enthusiasm and creative chops are evident throughout the menu, restraint and execution are not. 

Lamb meatballs with melted leeks and romesco sauce are sweet and peppery, and their simplicity partners well with the lush fruit and clove of the Summit Lake Zinfandel. More of those, please. And Barraco’s deconstructed chicken and waffles could inspire you to regularly take a solo seat at the bar with a glass of chardonnay or a Duvel Golden Ale. Beginning with Tanglewood’s flavorful chicken helps, but the perfectly fried umber crust yielding to the luscious meat, plus cheddary waffles freckled with the crunch of wild rice, and tied together by sweet apple butter and tangy braised collards makes the dish worthy of a permanent home on the menu.

If a chef has great ingredients (he does) and technique (that too), it’s best to let them shine with minimal preparation. The less-is-more approach works in food the same way it does in fashion: a fine suit or dress with clean lines and a couple of complimentary accessories will always trump trends. Many of the dishes we ate over our multiple visits arrived at the table looking—and tasting—overdressed. Remember Sallie’s heirloom tomatoes? In August, when local tomatoes, especially hers, are at their most flavorful, one or two accessories is all they need. The “Local Tom” salad looked like a 12-year-old girl who had raided her mother’s closet and emerged wearing everything at once. The gorgeous yellow, red, and orange tomatoes came tossed—no, not just tossed, smothered—in gooey mozzarella cream and hazelnut orange vinaigrette, their bed of onions and delicate upland (or winter) cress nothing but a limp, wet pile of greens.

No wonder Mitchell seemed to struggle with the pairing. He ticked off several recommended wines (the French burgundy, a decent wine, was one of the few of his recommendations that did not work). It wasn’t just the acid of the tomatoes he was contending with, but the five competing ingredients. The biggest disappointment was simply that the ripe flavor of the tomatoes and peppery cress were completely lost. The arugula salad, beautifully paired with local shaved radishes and aged parmigiana reggiano, suffered through the same winter-coat-on-a-summer-day fate, swimming in grilled lemon vinaigrette.

It’s not just salads that are overloaded. A very bright and lovely piquillo pepper sauce blanketed the plate where an ounce or less would have been enough for Barraco’s very good crab cake appetizer. But the “seasonal accompaniment” of a half dozen or so large green beans was just plain awkward, both texturally and as a flavor balance. Barraco makes an excellent burger in the style of Daniel Boulud, with braised short ribs tucked into the ground beef. Sallie’s tomatoes make another appearance here, as does pancetta and some crisp housemade pickles. All would be good if it came one of the two ways it can be ordered: “pink” or “not pink.” We ordered pink. It was delivered not.

The excellent wine list, arranged by flavor profiles rather than varietals, features dozens of varieties by the glass in five-ounce or two-ounce pours, which makes it easy to try several. While there are moments of clarity, and pairings that work, there is just too much going on with many of the dishes on the menu to make the complete meal the magical experience it could be. A little restraint could change that and help 20 Brix become the destination restaurant it aspires to be.

20 Brix Wine Bar
101 Main St., Milford
(513) 831-2749
Starters $7–$14, entrées $14–$25
Charming wine-centric restaurant with a seasonally diverse menu.

Originally published in the November 2011 issue.

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