So an entrepreneur, a sommelier and a chef walk into a bar.
At least, that seems to be the premise at Josephine Wine Bar, a newly built Spring Street structure that reads in details and dimensions like a little diorama of where the well-heeled gather. Much like the similarly French-inflected Felix, which beat it to the neighborhood by a matter of months, Josephine is the very model of a pleasant backdrop for lighthearted sipping and snacking: Behold the brass fixtures and living green plants!
Yet despite its tidy appearance, which extends from a marble bar up front to a Pinterest-style wine display near the back, Josephine feels as segmented as the tricolor flag. Clearly, former trial attorney Jill Cohen had something in mind when she plowed her money into a total overhaul of the street’s last surviving bean joint (much to Cohen’s credit, she’s frequently on site, warmly greeting customers: Leave it to a lawyer to nurture the jury.) And chef Shaun Connolly obviously has thoughts about food, just as sommelier Ashley Broshious came armed with a specific approach to wine.
None of their ideas really line up, though. It’s difficult to reconcile Broshious’ willfully brash list with the overtly feminine surroundings. And considering that “wine bar” accounts for two-thirds of the venue’s name, it’s odd how many of Connolly’s dishes defy pairing. For instance, near-squishy baby zucchini segments are clad in a thick gochujang sauce weighted down by brown sugar, with just a hint of ginger and white sesame seeds to levitate the vegetable’s flavor. It’s not a knock on the dish to note that it would go best with a cold beer.
Josephine pours beer and cocktails, too: I had fairly good luck with the latter. Still, the ever-loquacious Broshious is keen to talk up wine, often without regard to external concerns such as sliced Fresno chiles; togarashi powder or a customer’s aims.
When I first visited Josephine, I dined alone at the bar and drank a perfectly elegant Merlot blend from Bordeaux, paying $12 for the glass. I said something innocuously polite about it, which led Broshious to suggest I come back for a $375 bottle of Premier Cru from Burgundy. And the next time someone tells me about a fun trip to Asheville, I’m going to recommend trying the Alps.
Incongruity aside, I’m also not certain what food I could order at Josephine that wouldn’t overpower a wine with a triple-digit-priced pedigree. Even the house interpretation of grilled beef, which is usually a safe place to start when looking to flatter a nuanced French red, takes up so much room on the palate that it’s impossible for wine to get a flavor in edgewise. Notes of currant and tobacco are essentially steamrolled by the garlicky chimichurri, which is kept in place atop fingerling potatoes by a generous coating of duck fat. As for the sliced hanger steak, it’s seared with great care, but was sadly over-salted both times I tried it.
Too much salt and too much spice are the most common execution problems at Josephine, but it’s clear that Connolly put as much planning as seasoning into the dozen available dishes. While everything on offer is comfortably within the continental canon, including slit figs stuffed with Clemson blue cheese and a crescent of yolk-shiny beef tartare served with halved cornichons, this isn’t mere checklist cooking. No wine bar is obligated to serve a sort of smoked trout rilettes, with mayonnaise and thin yogurt singing fat’s part. Nor would most customers take to Yelp if a wine bar failed to supply an amuse bouche, even if it is seemingly forever the same corn bisque thickened with yogurt.
In fact, there are some areas in which I wish Josephine cleaved a little closer to wine bar traditions. Namely, it’s nice to have cheese on hand when you’re supposed to be drinking your way through France, despite a wine list that veers manic at moments. (Four different sparkling wines by the glass is one glass more than most wine specialists would call prudent.) Instead, Josephine serves a dense chocolate cake for dessert: It’s one of those gaudily rich numbers that resembles what’s pictured alongside bubble baths and Champagne flutes on greeting cards meant for overworked women.
On one occasion, my guest and I saved one of two menu items that sounded like cheese for our final course, but at Josephine, “fromage de vache” means something else entirely. (Best as I can tell, the listed burrata is burrata.) There is indeed a base layer of whipped cheese, but the dish would more accurately be described as a beet salad, with firm peach segments, cherry tomatoes and a scattering of chopped-up pistachios. Overall, it’s lovely.
Other dishes designed around fresh ingredients, as opposed to imported spices, also perform well. A nice piece of swordfish served over sugar snaps and turmeric-tinted beurre blanc had just the right amount of intensity, and the jicama cubes adorning a crab-crowned green salad showed an admirable command of subtlety. A pair of handmade pastas were harder to judge, since they were cooked past the point at which finesse is apparent: If you’re seeking starch, best to stick with the baked polenta wedges, topped with pan-roasted mushrooms braised with tomatoes and herbs.
Multiple servers told me Connolly is proudest of his curried squash, brushed with coconut pesto and finished with sliced chile peppers, feta cheese and pumpkin seeds. Their claim is borne out by the restaurant’s website, on which a photograph of the dish is featured prominently.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with the prized dish, which is seasonally correct and judiciously composed. Just don’t ask me why it’s being served in a place like this.
Without doubt, Josephine is an agreeable place to meet up with friends. But what it ultimately lacks is the coherence that comes from shared passion: That’s the quality which over the course of this decade has resulted in the city’s most exciting openings, ranging from Xiao Bao Biscuit in 2012 to Renzo this past spring. Three heads may be better than one in the realm of restaurant development, but they can’t replace one heart.