May 25, 2011

Bar Guide: Conundrum Wine Bistro, Freeport

A wine bar done right: Cozy, warm, welcoming

By JOHANNA SORRELL

Conundrum, in a nutshell, is a bar defined by its wine list.

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Conundrum Wine Bistro owner Vincent Migliaccio pours a glass of Ladera Cabernet, one of among 250 varieties he keeps on hand – some so rare that the cost runs more than $1,500 a bottle.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

CONUNDRUM WINE BISTRO

WHERE: 117 Route 1, Freeport. 865-0303

HOURS: Open for dinner 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; bar open later on weekends.

PARKING: Plenty, behind the famous Big Indian.

AMENITIES: Cozy places to dine and drink, fireplaces, couches and an incredible back porch.

SCENE: Seasoned, local diners and wine lovers who know a gem when they see one.

But let me say this now: Don't let that intimidate you. Instead, let it entice you. You'll be glad you did.

The list is vast and broad and everything you could ever want in a wine list -- if, that is, you know about wine. But if you're anything like me, intimidation starts to set in pretty quickly when you're staring down at pages of words that mean close to nothing (beyond "red" and "white," of course).

Although I am by no stretch of the imagination wine-knowledgable (as sadly revealed by my very limited wine vocabulary, mainly consisting of "bold," "round," "grassy," "balanced" and "smooth"), I do know that I am an absolute enthusiast. I might even go as far as calling myself a wine lover.

If any of this sounds at all familiar to you, you'll do quite well at Conundrum. And if you consider yourself a wine connoisseur, prepare to be delighted.

It seems that the key to Conundrum being such a welcoming experience is the service. The simple fact is that the folks who work there want you to ask questions, learn about the diverse and adventurous selection, and have fun with it.

Vincent Migliaccio, the incredibly congenial owner of Conundrum who is known as Vinny, happily spends gracious amounts of time with his patrons, talking about wine in the same way many of us talk about sports. He'll settle for nothing less than guiding you into a glass of something delicious.

And chances are you'll learn a bit about the wine you're drinking along the way, which is always a bonus.

I feel that's a large part of Conundrum's appeal -- making wine, and your evening's experience in general, completely accessible.

At many other wine-centric bars, when presented with a wine list, I find myself immediately looking for words and names I recognize. At Conundrum, the wine list is a jumping-off point for conversation, helping you create the evening experience you're looking for, while likely finding something -- or many things -- new and delicious along the way.

Here's how they do it: Conundrum offers more than 60 wines by the glass. They also offer them by the half-glass. The concept is brilliant. If you're going to go to a wine bar, you want to feel like you can try a solid variety, rather than having to commit to a glass or two because that's all you (and your wallet) can handle.

And being smaller glasses, the price point is also smaller. Most half glasses fall between $3.50 and $5, so don't let your wallet be the hold-up. Full glasses are priced mostly between $6 and $9, and bottles follow suit accordingly.

And true to Conundrum form, you can taste pretty much anything you'd like before committing.

Although Conundrum largely focuses on wine, I noticed a fleet of martinis rushing by throughout the evening in frosty, sexy glasses. Some of those included the Cucumber Gimlet (Square One cucumber organic vodka, fresh lime juice and simple syrup, $8.50), the Ginger Rose (Skyy ginger vodka, Caravella limoncello and a dash of bitters, $7.50), or for a classic summer treat, the Dark and Stormy ($7.50).

So if wine isn't your thing, don't feel excluded at all. Conundrum clearly knows what it's doing in the cocktail department as well. And there's a food menu.

Then there's the ambience. If you sit on the porch outside, cozy into one of the classy wicker chairs with overstuffed cushions, a teak coffee table casually placed between you and the fireplace, and sheltered under a canopy-like roof filled with twinkling little white lights. It feels like summer at the beach house, at least for the evening.

Stay inside and find one of the many intimate nooks tucked here and there by the bar, relax on one of the huge leather couches in the back by the wine room (where hundreds of bottles of wine are on display behind glass doors), or find a table for two or more placed somewhere along the deep blue walls.

Anyway you spin it, you'll find a spot that suits you. Plus, you get to choose your own seat, which adds to the slight sense of happy chaos, but ultimate comfort and accessibility of the place.

Finding Conundrum is surprisingly easy as well -- just drive along Route 1 in Freeport until you get to the Big Indian, then park. The ease of getting there poses a pretty perfect parallel for my Conundrum experience: surprisingly kind, playfully delicious and comfortably delightful.

Johanna Sorrell is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

 

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