3349 Monroe Ave. # F, Rochester, NY 14618
Web: Century Pittsford Wines
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"A $12 plate of Porter Braised Beef Short Ribs was served with a sliced, miso-soaked fingerling potato, some sauteed arugula, and a garnish of pretzel gremolata."
Last week, we told you about Pittsford, New York's "Wegmans of the Future" - a 140,000-square foot store with a fancy restaurant on one side, free mini-facials in its cosmetics department, and a Godiva chocolate shop up front. But we left out part of the story: a fascinating Wegman-family controlled 45,000-square foot liquor store, labeled alternately as Century Pittsford Wines and "Nicole's Wine & Spirits," located only a parking lot's distance away from the Wegmans supermarket. This shop and Tastings, the aforementioned fancy Wegmans restaurant, are the subjects of part four of our look at this growing retailer.
Shown in our first four photographs, Tastings is a natural extension of the supermarket chain's gourmet ambitions - a restaurant that focuses on serving higher-end cuisine in a far nicer setting than the sub, coffee, and buffet shops Wegmans operates inside other stores. At Tastings, you'll find tables with white tablecloths, velvet-padded wooden chairs, and wine menus at the ready as you sit down; brick archways and nice drapes divide the seating area, while various legitimately nice lighting fixtures give the room a sophisticated, modern look. There's also a fully equipped patio outside, cordoned off from the nearby parking lot, and it's obvious that all of Tastings' indoor and outdoor decor was picked by people with very good taste.
So was most of what we sampled there; we actually liked almost all of the non-sushi items we tried during a lunch at Tastings, starting with a complementary dish of three types of very nice bread that appeared along with our appetizers. The most universally appealing two slices were from sweet, healthy-tasting multi-grain raisin bread, while another two tasted of pepper and currants, and the last two were soft Italian - all three fresh, and hinting at the greatness of the store's bakery. From a list of appetizers, we selected the $7 "Tasting of Smoked and Cured Meats," a plate with three cold items sourced from nearby sausage house Hartmann's: great bars of Landjager, good slices of Andouille, and one oversized disk of Liverwurst, which due to personal preference rather than a defect in the meat neither of us would have liked, even if it hadn't been deposited atop a generous pool of mustard. Attractively plated, the meats were served with six bread crackers, sesame seeded and sliced peppers, and some greens; it was overall a nice sampler.
Out of interest, we also ordered three "fruit-infused" drinks - two really nice, pulpy Peach-infused and Mixed Berry-infused Lemonades ($3 each), plus a fine Mixed Berry Iced Tea ($2.50). Hadn't we been concerned about driving, we'd have dug into the interesting cocktail menu's Pineapple Mojitos, Caipirinhas, and other drinks, which all sounded interesting, though pricey at around $10 each.
Two other items we ordered were even better. We disagreed only a little on how much we both liked one, a $12 plate of Porter Braised Beef Short Ribs, which was served with a sliced, miso-soaked fingerling potato, some sauteed arugula, and a garnish of what looked like bonito flakes but was actually a finely-chopped pretzel gremolata. The potato was excellent, its miso paste overwhelming the fine bits of arugula, and the rib meat was properly cooked to a level of moisture and texture that made each slice taste as if it had been soaking in wet heat for hours. One of us found the mostly natural flavor of the beef to be good, the other very good. A Classic Caesar Salad ($7.50, not shown) was generous in size, packed with romaine, very fresh, lightly garlicky croutons, and just the right amount of a pecorino cheese-chunked caesar dressing. It wasn't incredible, but we liked it.
That brings us to the sushi, which is a noteworthy part of both the lunch and dinner menus, so we had fairly high expectations - we had somehow managed to completely compartmentalize and separate Tastings' options from the packaged sushi served at other Wegmans stores. Then we tried our best to ignore the big red flags that were waving in our face - the fact that the Spicy Tuna Rolls are served with bleu cheese, the Yellowtail Scallion Roll with a truffle vinaigrette, and the Fresh Water Eel Roll with cucumber, avocado, and egg, the latter element in each roll arguably unnecessary. We ordered them anyway, and each was alright; the rice was of the "decomposing while you eat" variety, while the fish and veggies were uniformly weak in flavor, no part up to the standards of truly good or great sushi. That bleu cheese, recommended by our server as a surprisingly nice complement to the Spicy Tuna, was anything but: bleu cheese might work for wings, but the bland tuna gained nothing when dipped here. Tastings' similarly mild Yellowtail was helped a little by the bowl of vinaigrette, and the Eel's normally unique flavor was drowned out by the egg and soggy rice. Overall, we were left with the sense that Wegmans still doesn't really understand authentic sushi, no matter whether it's selling it fresh from the kitchen or out of a plastic box. It's a shame.
So here's the shock in the Tastings story, and one that we weren't expecting when we walked in: six months from now, it apparently won't exist. Our server mentioned that Wegmans will be relocating Tastings to a new building across the street by November of this year, renaming it to Next Door Bar & Grill, and expanding the menu - "but we're keeping the sushi!" Great. So what will happen to the former Tastings location? No idea, yet, but it's hard to imagine Wegmans gutting all of the nice decor here and turning this space into an expanded coffee bar or something. We'll just have to see.
One thing that probably won't be happening with the space - unless something changes in the New York State Legislature between now and November - is a conversion into a liquor shop. If you've never left New York State, you mightn't be able to imagine the idea of a supermarket with a true liquor store inside, filled with more than just beer, wine coolers, and non-alcoholic sparkling beverages. But in other states, supermarkets stock everything from inexpensive wines to thousand-dollar bottles of scotch and bona fide champagnes - whatever might go with the meal you're about to purchase. And people love it.
Wegmans knows this - it even sells wines and liquors in other states - but in New York, it's legally not able to do so due to a long-disputed law. So it has been conducting a surprising little experiment called Century Pittsford Wines. Located within brief walking distance from the Pittsford Wegmans, this wine shop is for legal reasons owned not by Wegmans as a corporation, but rather the owner's daughter Nicole Wegman - coincidentally also Vice-President of Wegmans' Restaurant Operations, overseeing Tastings. (Interestingly, there was even a Tastings promotional poster on one of the entry doors when we visited.) Wegman opened the liquor store in April 2008 after acquiring it from a prior owner, who has stayed on as a manager; she has since doubled its size, and apparently also enjoyed a dramatic increase in patronage. Yet plans for a second New York store in DeWitt, which would be owned by another Wegman family member, have run into community roadblocks... from competitors. Interesting, eh?
Even more interesting is what Century Pittsford Wines actually offers inside. As much as we prefer the cosmetics of the various impressive Premier Group stores - this shop has plain floors, old-looking shelves, and comparatively little flair - the selection here is in some ways more impressive, though in other ways, not. For instance, the full line of four different 1921 Tequilas, for which we had to make a special order request in Buffalo, were all just sitting here on display in a large tequila section, and the store also had selections of various absinthes, cachacas, and other increasingly popular but less than completely mainstream liquors. A massive selection of wines was disappointing primarily in its weak representation of Western New York varieties, but the overall collection of choices here is so huge that maps are offered at the entrance to the store. Seriously. They're not necessary, but they hint at the business's scale.
One thing that shocked us: an aisle labeled "Rhone Valley," "Wi-Fi," "Books," and "Magazines." Which one of those things doesn't quite sound like your average liquor store? Walk down the aisle and - right next to a magazine rack with Wine Spectator issues and various wine-related books - you'll find a couple of tables with chairs, plus a computer set up with a web browser pointing to Wine Spectator's web site so customers can do research. A promotional tie-in? Perhaps, but hey, there's a open computer in a liquor store. And Wi-Fi. We've never seen this sort of thing before, even in California's nice, big BevMo locations, which we used to love.
This might be because Century Pittsford Wines is comfortable with its prices. Large 1.75-liter Bottles of Sobieski Vodka that sell for no less than $17 online were marked at an "everyday low price" of $16.49 here, and though there were plenty of other, less aggressively priced bottles to use as contrary examples, the numbers we saw struck us as generally reasonable. It's no surprise that Wegmans - err, Nicole Wegman - has access to great pricing, but the store comes across as less of a threat to other retailers than just another option with an unusually large selection. There's room, we strongly believe, for more stores like this, and for competitors with better selections of fine and local wines.
For the time being, this concludes our look at Wegmans, but you can be certain that we'll continue to watch this chain's developments with great interest. No other local retailer has the potential to change the way we shop as much as this one, and we're generally excited to see what happens next.