My friends are cheeseists. I say this with both love (they are my friends, after all) and respect (the two ladies in question have culinary chops to spare and far outrank me on the foodie food chain). They are not racists, sexists, ageists, or any other ists that might warrant shame or outrage. They don't deserve your scorn, and you have nothing to fear from them. Unless you're a big, sweaty hunk of Havarti. Or Gouda. Or Jarlsberg. Then, I'm afraid, we have a problem.
So it was on our recent visit to Marc 49, the charming new wine bar on Telegraph in Oakland — in the Temescal neighborhood that's already home to Pizzaiolo and Doña Tomás. As three of us perused the menu, we were struck by two things: shockingly low prices and the no-frills nature of its very first item: a cheese and fruit plate featuring Jarlsberg, Brie, provolone, crumbled blue, sliced apples and pears, and crostini. Let's face it: as cheeses go, especially in today's aggressively artisanal climate, Jarlsberg, Brie, provolone, and blue do not smack of sophistication. These cheeses are not likely to be local (How about Humboldt Fog or a dry Monterey Jack?) nor are they exotic (Gjetost? Explorateur?), nor famously delicious (Stilton! Saint André! Montrachet!). No one passed judgment, mind you, but the menu's message came through loud and clear: Marc 49 is a pretension-free zone. Simple, familiar pleasures are its stock-in-trade, and at a time when new wine bars and wine-focused restaurants crop up often and can so easily cross the line between urbane and intimidating, simple and familiar feels pretty good.
If you're worried that this refreshing lack of pretension might translate, design-wise, into the aesthetic equivalent of a ham sandwich, think again. Mod-gothic is what I'd call the look Marc 49 has achieved in its interior, through wrought-iron lanterns over the bar, a rustic chandelier, and textured dark paint on walls covered with wine labels and other wine memorabilia. Low leather seats at teak tables in the main dining area practically beg for quiet, conspiratorial exchanges, and taller leather stools at the L-shaped polished bar of natural wood will appeal to solo drinkers and diners.
Outside, several wood tables bathe in the warmth of heat lamps in an intimate back patio. This is where we didn't have the cheese plate. We started instead with salads: first, the "Napa," which is comprised of baby spinach, fried onions, beets, and a honey-lime vinaigrette. One companion was bothered by the Napa's touch of sweetness, but the rest of us found it light and tasty. I also loved the garlicky, classically rendered Caesar. We knew what we were in for when selecting the "Sonoma" salad of butter lettuce, pears, blue cheese, candied walnuts, a blueberry vinaigrette, and blueberries, and yet — stating the obvious — too much blueberry here. It infused the salad with a flavor vaguely reminiscent of artificially flavored blueberry cereal.
While the salads are all named for wine regions, Marc 49's panini are named for Oakland's streets, and we couldn't get enough of a prosciutto panino called the "51st." The cured ham blended perfectly with caramelized onions, Havarti (holding its own here, I'm happy to say), and balsamic vinaigrette. The choice of bread for both the panini and the bruschetta was a tad too fluffy for our liking, compromising the crispness that one expects from both dishes. But the panini are definitely tasty enough to help you tune out this one small flaw.
Dessert is limited to just two options: a chocolate brownie and chocolate mousse. Gooey was the operative word for the delectably molten brownie — a great end to a modest yet pleasurable meal. Looking at the menu as a whole, I think wine-loving vegetarians will find a lot to like here, from the array of bruschetta to the many salads and vegetarian panini.
Marc 49 boasts an international wine list with moderately priced flights of three or four two-ounce pours of your choosing. As far as bang for your buck, this is the way to go, since the by-the-glass markup is a typical 200 to 300 percent. Still, if you're a wine lover, it's easy to forgive by-the-glass prices that hover around $10 when you can easily enjoy a light meal here for less than that amount. You're also paying for a pro behind the bar — one of my foodie friends cautiously ordered a Viognier, aware that this lesser-known varietal rarely gets ordered by the glass and is therefore often poured from an older open bottle. Not so at Marc 49, where the bartender quickly realized that the day-old open bottle she first picked up wouldn't do. She poured out the wine and opened a fresh bottle. Foodie was impressed.
I went back to Marc 49 for a second visit with the sole mission of trying that much-discussed cheese plate. The weekend in between my two visits, one of the cheeseists brought a snack to my house: cashews, dried fruit, a hunk of Petit Basque, some honeyed chèvre, and crusty bread. Now this is a cheese plate, I thought — while at the same time feeling slightly guilty that these rich nibbles had stacked the deck against the plain-Jane cheeses in my immediate future. And yet ... fast-forward 24 hours, to a dimly lit cocoon of wine flights and bargain eats, and you know what? Jarlsberg tastes good! A bit firmer and saltier than I expected, but predictably buttery and satisfying. Scooped up on slices of apple, the blue cheese satisfied as well, as did the Havarti. Only the Brie disappointed; no characteristic gooeyness here, just firm blandness. But overall, the plate was still a terrific bargain at $6 — and an object lesson in value.
On a forward-looking note, Marc 49 owner Ramzi Faraj has plans in the works for a diner in Temescal, tentatively named Horseshoe. I'm eager to see how the wine bar's winning philosophy and aesthetic translate to breakfast and lunch.