A friend told me about Savvy Cellar, a new wine bar in downtown Redwood City by the Fox theater that opened in December. We decided to have dinner beforehand and ended up at Tarboosh, the Lebanese restaurant around the corner.
I liked Tarboosh a lot, although it was the service and atmosphere as much or more than the food. The restaurant is filled with art and musical instruments, and we were warmly welcomed. (Although because we didn't have a reservation, we were seated in the line of the door, which meant cold air coming in all night; and a succession of other non-reservers suffered the same fate despite the fact that the restaurant was never more than half full).
I got an assorted mezza and a fattoosh salad, which was tasty. Donna got chicken schwarma; we were seated in the corner on the other side of the glass from it and watched it sizzle all night appetizingly. Portions are enormous. The mezza came with hummous, baba ganoush, kibbe, a small spinach pie, tabbbouleh, and a fried cheese cigar. The kibbe was my favorite of these, redolent of cinnamon. Pastries were tasty but reheated. The kitchen favors a lot of lemon, which we liked in the spinach and tabboleh, but be forewarned.
Service was warm and attentive. I wish we'd ordered the Arabic coffee after seeing it arrive at the next table; the mint tea was a tea bag of black tea with a few fresh strips of mint floating in it. Desserts sounded good. Perhaps it was our waiter's enthusiasm. I wasn't blown away by anything, but prices are very fair and I'd return if I were in the area.
We then headed over to Savvy Cellar, where Jennifer the owner greeted my friends and asked how they'd been. A jazz band was playing. Atmosphere is quite nice. Four or five tables including two intimate nooks in the back; one was reserved for a birthday party. Plus about 10 seats at the bar. Wines are $5-12 a glass and $12-16 a flight; none is more than $39 a bottle and all are rated 90 and above by someone. I gather they rotate what's open on each night.
Savvy is the antithesis of the trendy wine bars that keep opening in the city, although it would be ideal for tourists. The wines aren't especially exotic, and while there's a reasonable representation geographically, the main criteria seems to be value. That said, they weren't pouring any chardonnays by the glass and only a single cabernet, so there's nothing cookie cutter about the selection either, and European and Australian wines are well represented, along with California wines. We shared a flight of four reds, a glass of Riesling, a glass of Tokay, and a glass of a 10-year old Blandys Madeira.
Stemware varied considerably. The flight was presented in small cheaper glasses, which was a disadvantage for wines that really needed to open up; the Riesling in a much better glass. Madeira came in an enormous goblet. My primary complaint is that even the detailed wine descriptions on the back of the menu didn't list provenance--not even the country, just vineyard, varietal and year. So we had to ask where a Kangarilla zinfandel was from (McLaren Vale, South Australia) and where the riesling was from (Santa Barbara, I think), which took a while as they got busier.
My favorite tastes of the night were a glass of 2003 Chateauneuf du Pape and the madeira, once I got past it reminding me of the cream sherry I used to drink in college. (What would you serve with a good madeira? maybe the fig cake they were serving or salted almonds.) The tokay had a fantastic aroma and color but an aftertaste of butterscotch that overwhelmed it.
Snacks including an appealing cheese plate, tins of bittersweet chocolates (made by the San Francisco chocolate co and labeled as chocolate to complement wines), and a cheesecake were available and are moderately priced. Atmosphere was charming, and by the time we left around 9:30, there weren't any seats. It looks like they'll do well, especially on Saturdays when they're open until 11.
Not designed for wine snobs, and neither of these was a destination if you live in the city; but very enjoyable all the same, and the kinds of places I would frequent often if I lived nearby. The website says they have free WiFi, in case you want to come and work : )