It all happened very organically. When Olibjorn Stephensen, the Icelandic co-owner of New York’s esteemed natural wine hub The Ten Bells, wanted to open a new restaurant, it was second nature to ask his friend and wine buyer Philippe “Fifi” Essome to curate the list. In August, his spot Skál opened up in Chinatown, with Scandinavian-influenced dishes created by Ben Spiegel, a young chef he charmed out of Willows Inn at Lummi Island in Washington, who has also worked at Noma in Denmark.
The restaurant’s light and briny food has delighted both Lower East Siders and Icelandic natives, but after three months the team reworked its menu and unique wine offerings this week. We caught up with general manager Stephen McClure and co-owner Christophe O. about changes to wine list.
What are the challenges serving natural wines in a restaurant?
Christophe: People go to restaurants to have their dish that they love. For some, wine is the same way. We have some regulars already, and they drink exactly the same wine. But with natural wine, the wine maker has a small quantity. If we run out, we won’t get it until the next season. Working with The Ten Bells, we have to fight with them about having more cases. People get attached, so we have to have some regular wines.
Stephen: Especially for the white wine list, we won’t see what is here beyond the next two months. These will go away pretty quickly. The production level of many of them is so low that they just won’t be available. It’s exciting because we get to sit here and find new things all the time.
If you’re out of a wine, how do you get your customers to try new things?
Christophe: Some people already know what they want and it’s very difficult to convince them to try something else, but generally people want to try. We’re a new place with new dishes, and it’s very easy for us to get them to try something different. When you smile at them, you can change anything.
Stephen: It’s not the habitual smile or Christophe’s charisma. I think every person here is passionate about what’s either on the dinner menu or the wine list. That carries through in a really understated way. Approaching a table, then, is the easy part in the whole scenario. People want to experience what is in front of them or what’s being proposed. But also new product renews the staff’s palate and passion. There’s always something new to be tried and feel good about. We have a very loyal neighborhood customer base and they also want to see new things as well as get attached to some things, but it renews a dialogue between us and the customers.
What are the changes the wine list is going through?
Stephen: The first wines Fifi set us up with - some were tough and required some hand holding. We’re wine savvy, but at the same I didn’t want our servers to have to spend so much time walking a customer through them. I’m enthusiastic about continuing with minimal intervention wines. With a list like this, that is not dumbed down like many restaurants, it’s not just Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. You really have the opportunity to put something in front of someone that is extraordinary and blow their mind.
Christophe: We want to keep a variety of appellations and grapes, so there is a reason for customers to come back. Fifi goes twice a year to France to choose wines, and imports wines from small producers. They’re specially imported for him and for The Ten Bells. We tried to have a little bit of wine from everywhere, but sixty percent of the wines were from France.
“Skal” is Icelandic for “to toast.” How does the Icelandic theme fit into all of this?
Stephen: Ben does a great job giving a nod to the traditional Icelandic fare but it’s his translation and the menu is his. There are a lot preserved things. Lots of seafood, which speaks to the cuisine, but at the same time it’s fresh and out of the ordinary. It requires a finesse of language to not burst our customers’ attachment to the Icelandic theme. But at the same time, when we walk them through the menu, whether they’ve grown up there or recently visited, they’re drawn to it. He’s amazingly creative.
Christophe: When we get people from Iceland, they recognize the surroundings. They feel at home.
Stephen: The living room atmosphere, modeled after Olibjorn’s intention of an Icelandic fishing village, is so indicative of what we actually experience behind the scenes here.
Christophe: With the drinks, we really wanted to do something different. There’s not a lot of organic wine from Scandinavia. We’re trying to do some infusions with Reyka vodka to get some flavor from Iceland. We don’t have aquavit, because all of the places have aquavit.
What’s on the horizon for Skal?
Christophe: In the future we’re doing a special cocktail every week, with one of the infusions from our bartenders. We’re thinking beets, bacon, roasted pear and roasted apricot in Icelandic vodka.
Stephen: We’re also implementing happy hour wines. It’s a Muscadet ($7), which is traditional, and a Monastrell ($7), which is organic. These are more food friendly - they’re definitely more suitable for month three of where we’re at with the menu as it has evolved. There’s more fish on the menu and more lighter bodied red wines. Natural wines mean a lot to us, but there were some gaps in the list that forced us to look at more traditional wines. The chardonnay that we started with wasn’t what people were really looking for. For us, it was a great wine but if you have to get through half a glass before you decide you don’t like it, that’s no good from a customer perspective.
We’re trying to keep it affordable price point wise for this neighborhood, but at the same time be appealing to people who see this as a destination. If I have a need for $100 bottle of wine, I don’t want it to be seen as everyday drinking wine. It’s hard. We’re moving away from what were really esoteric, or more difficult wines. When someone orders it, it requires so much, “It is, but it lacks this.” When a server has to start speaking in the negative, all is lost.
Stephen McClure has worked as the cellar manager and dining room manager at Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island in Washington. Prior to that he owned a small wine shop on Vashon Island, southwest of Seattle. Christophe O. has worked at Les Enfants Terribles and Ten Bells. For more information, go to Skal's website.