Sapristi! is Italian slang for surprise, or something like that. But what surprised me at this bistro and wine bar were the posters hanging on the wall. "They're lithographs of the originals," a manager said. And they don't have much to do with bistro culture, at least not as far as I can tell. There's one announcing a 400-mile "International Race" in Savannah in 1908. One bandies a 500-mile race in Chicago in 1915, I think. Another speaks of an Indianapolis race in 1914, an era when Firestone meant so much more than simply a Ford SUV that rolls over like a schnauzer. Inserted between these racing posters is an out-of-place poster advertising Venise.
Yet the most interesting poster is at the far end of the yellow-washed wall. It advertises the Grand Prix of Cuba with a blazing red Ferrari (I think) but gives no year. There were two Grand Prix races in Cuba: one in 1957, and the other in 1958. The 1958 affair made history when five-time world racing champion Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina was kidnapped just after he returned to his hotel from practice. Fangio was approached by a tall man who shoved a gun barrel in his ribs and hustled him off to a waiting car, something like the INS did last year, only they made off with a tricyclist instead of a race-car driver. Fangio was held for 26 hours while Fidel Castro's henchmen fed him propaganda and meals. Unfortunately, he missed the race.
But these posters aren't the only amusements at Sapristi!. There is also wine gathered on a real bistrolike list with lots of earthy (and cheap; the markup is roughly double wholesale) bottlings from California, Oregon, France, Italy and South America (didn't catch any Texas). And there's a broad range of selections from sangiovese and zinfandel to Vouvray and gewürztraminer. Plus, most can be ordered by the glass, and the prices--some at $4.32 or $4.86--seem whittled mathematically down to the penny. Plus, if you get a sip you love, Sapristi! will sell you a bottle for half the wine list price. This is a doubly good convenience because many of these wines are relatively scarce on wine-shop shelves.
There is plenty to pair the wines with as well. The tomato and mozzarella salad with black olives looked like a ho-hum appetizer when dressed in its menu verbiage. But on the plate it's a crafty dish. Slices of Roma tomato are fanned in a tight circle alternated with slices of mozzarella. Canned black olives are chopped into tiny specks and clumped into the center of the tomato slices--an elegant stroke with what is often a clumsy and uninteresting ingredient. In the center of the plate is a dab of thick pesto.
Not surprisingly, Sapristi!'s lunch menu offers an assortment of pedestrian sandwiches in chichi duds. Among the most interesting is the BLT, which is transmogrified to PST for prosciutto, spinach and tomato. Witty, I guess. Still, this single-decker on rye bread was a damn good sandwich with a range of flavors far more complex than the typical BLT in a plastic tub served from a vending machine. The sandwich came with a side pile of pomme frites dusted with herbs, the most prominent of which was dried rosemary. A ramekin of flavored mayo accompanied the sandwich for dipping. It's hard to believe this plate includes so many food groups.
Yet the fries could have used a little more salt, which is no problem because each table is equipped with a cardboard shaker of sea salt imported from France. This, too, is available for sale.
Soups are hard-working, too. Tomato, a dark red pottage the color of Ragu after a shot of cabernet, was smooth and thick and so racy it almost forced a lip pucker on the way down. Asparagus Brie worked well, too. This cloud green was so clean and true to the asparagus shoot flavor, it made you leery of going to the bathroom with clear nostrils. Richness was supplied by small pieces of Brie tossed into the soup.
Sapristi! is owned by Bernard Tronche, the restaurateur who owns St. Emilion. And the place is suffused with an easy, relaxed feel. Dark wood wainscoting and wooden chairs with wicker chair backs give it an almost colloquial timbre. Stained glass, Tiffany-like chandeliers provide illumination, and a row of ceiling fans rotating in opposite directions lend an almost lazy decadence.
Off the actual wine bar are stacks of wooden wine racks that reach almost to the ceiling. A magnum and a jeroboam of Mumm Cordon Rouge--the official champagne of Sapristi!, according to the list--are plugged into various nooks created by the racks' assemblies.
The service is as relaxed as the atmosphere; maybe too relaxed. Menu knowledge was spotty, and long gaps infected service intervals. Empty wine glasses were left poised on the table for long periods (the last red wine dribble had dried in the glass) before they were noticed, a near fatal oversight for a wine bar.
Fortunately, so much else with Sapristi! is right that these slippages are mere thirst distractions. Sapristi! Antipasto from the sea sounds bigger on the menu than it actually is. The small platter is crowded with rolls of smoked salmon, a pair of shrimp dazzled in a dab of cocktail sauce, chewy and tasty mussels in vinaigrette smooched with dabs of red sauce and assorted olives and marinated peppers on a bed of greens. The curled salmon strips were smooth, thin and tasty. But they were warm instead of chilled, flinging the flavors toward the palate with less appeal. Shards of crab bound in cream with avocado and corn were cool and sweetly delicious, while the brined olives and marinated pepper squeezed off an engaging counterpoint to the rest of the plate.
Rotisserie-roasted Long Island duck was a valiant effort and one that's damn fun to pair with cheap palatable swills on a bistro wine list. Still, this mostly moist duck flesh was tough and hard to cut, let alone chew. It's offered with a choice of green peppercorn sauce or a raspberry glaze. The peppercorn sauce is a brisk cloud of feverish pangs. And while it was noted on the menu that the duck skin was crispy, it was to some extent, though maybe not enough to compensate for leatheriness of the interior. The duck was side-saddled with a small crowd of moist roasted potatoes and julienne vegetables.
Grilled chicken breast niçoise was savory but slightly flawed as well. Sections of moist breast were flush with comely grill flavor, and white crumbles of goat cheese that dotted the chicken musculature here and there added richness. The plump breasts rested on a bed of linguini drizzled with virgin olive oil and sat next to a tiny patch of chopped tomato and black-olive salad sewn with a little basil. The array was delicious, but it seemed to lack a merging bit of viscosity, like a light sauce that would, if nothing else, loosely tie the linguini to the chicken.
An apple tart with whipped cream and caramel sauce for dessert was an engaging topper; its predecessors on the rest of the menu served the meal much better.
Sapristi! is the living embodiment of the casual approach that should be exerted when entertaining a wine focus. It's neither carelessly lackadaisical nor militantly effete. The fact that this place is smart about its looseness just doubles the pleasure. Maybe Dallas will get one of these.