Place des Fêtes in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood is exactly what I want when I think of a wine bar. For one, it’s spacious. That might sound unremarkable anywhere else, but I’ve always found that restaurants in New York City that place their wine at the center of their business traditionally tend to be more cramped affairs, where there are maybe a few tables, but mostly, everybody has to huddle around a bar. And while the place is comfortable and the list is beautifully curated, they have one specific thing on the menu that I’ve started to look for when I go to a place where wine is the main attraction: anchovies. Or, at the very least, some sort of marinated fish that I can use to put my wine to work, cutting into the brine and salt.
Most of my past experiences when it comes to places that put wine above all else — especially in America — showed that the food was almost always lacking. Maybe some crusty, grocery-store-bought baguette and some brie from a few aisles down, and of course, olives. But places like Place des Fêtes are changing that. The wine list is curated but affordable, but it’s the food — a lovely assortment of fresh vegetable dishes, cheeses, and an unforgettable plate of beets — that I couldn’t stop thinking about after my first visit. They put so much thought into every dish, yet my first reaction upon looking at the menu was a simple, visceral one. It was, “Oh, of course we need to start with the anchovies.” In the case of Place des Fêtes, the boquerone is done in a way similar to what you might get at any given place you visit in Spain, but they play around, going with mackerel instead of anchovies. The texture is a little different, but the feel is similar. When I mentioned to a friend that we were getting the mackerel, and then I watched the friend enjoy the order, I asked if they’d be as excited if I had said we were getting a plate of anchovies. They looked at me and admitted no, they wouldn’t.
For most Americans, there has almost always been the same pathway to either loving or hating anchovies. “As a kid, my exposure was only when my dad would order them on his half of the pizza,” Parcelle co-founder Grant Reynolds tells me. “Occasionally, a bit would wander onto my allocation of the pie. It was so vile it made me resent my otherwise wonderful father.” Personally, I loved anchovies at a very early age. I’ve always liked smelly foods, and would ask my parents to let me get canned tuna and sardines at the grocery store. So when I learned that there were little fishes you could get on a pizza, I would beg and plead for them as an extra addition.
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Despite my enthusiasm, the anchovy has had a rough go in the U.S. “We might consent to put one or two into our Caesar salad, or occasionally deign to drape a few across a piece of pizza, but the affair ends there,” Ruth Reichl wrote for Town & Country just a year ago. But besides restaurants that focused on Spanish or Mediterranean cuisine, finding places that would serve you a plate of anchovies wasn’t always easy — until the last few years, when anchovies became the new olives at spots with terrific wine menus. They became a snack you are almost always likely to see if you go someplace where the server asks if you want to start off with a nice pét-nat before ordering, and it’s started to change a lot of preconceived ideas some of us may have once held about these little, oily fishes.
“Today, the anchovies I consume are of a different breed,” Reynolds says of his own evolution as it relates to the ingredient. “I love them, even if it now is a bit of a trope. They are easy to serve, and work well with the high-acid, salty wines that are what people are craving. If the ‘everyone has it’ canape of the times is a sardine over foie gras — sign me up.”
And it is starting to feel like everyone does have them. In New York, a recent dinner with some friends at Sami and Susu on the Lower East Side started with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Slovakia that we ordered with a plate of anchovies, asking the server if we could do the very un-New York dining thing of ordering one small plate and deciding on all the others. To my surprise, the server told us that’s becoming commonplace. They joked that maybe the anchovies help people think more clearly about what else they want to eat. On a recent trip to Chicago, hoping to avoid the trap of Old Style beer and shots of Malört I usually fall into when I visit, I made a reservation at Porto, deciding I’d go the Mediterranean route instead of Italian (beef) for dinner. Much to my delight, I found that the menu featured Galician white anchovies the team pickles in-house with cured brown anchovies on a wafer made from garbanzo beans. The dill and confit garlic puree they drizzle on it hits your nostrils even before you see the server carrying it out.
Now, when I go to a place and I see anchovies or some other oily fish as an option for a starter, I pick a wine that will go with that order. I recognize this — going to a wine place and making an appetizer the center of attention — might seem a little off to some, but when a friend recently joked with me and asked if I’d go to a place that serves mozzarella sticks as a starter and ask for a wine that goes with them, I had to think about it for a second. Maybe not an entire bottle, but a glass to go with whatever I’ve ordered first just feels right, especially if the starter or snack in question has a strong opinion like most oily fish do. I always order the anchovies at LaLou, but on my latest trip, my friend and I were eyeing a Sauvignon Blanc from Austria and I did the very basic thing of asking, “Will this go well with anchovies?” since I have a one-track mind. I was looking for guidance because I wanted some wine with my anchovies, basically. Dave Foss, co-founder of LaLou, gave me the most simple explanation of how to enjoy some wine with my fish:
“Anchovies on their own work best with crisp, bright white wines. My personal favorite is Assyrtiko from Santorini. The anchovies balance out the acid,” he says. He suggests steering clear of weightier reds, but says he will also “veer towards the classic pairing of manzanilla/fino sherry and anchovies, or even Champagne.”
The last suggestion got me. Something with some sparkle and pop against the fishes with olive oil drizzled over it sounded perfect. I looked at my anchovy-curious friend and suggested the combination. He nodded. Not long after, we finished off the entire plate and washed it down with a bottle of R.H. Coutier Brut Grand Cru Rosé. The sun started to come out and my friend said, “You know, I could get used to this. The anchovies, I mean.”