Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wine, Tapas and New Orleans Jazz Satisfy Completely

Last night, I was looking for some action and decided to visit a small restaurant that was featuring a quartet. Based on not much more information than that, I drove to the warm center of San Leandro, California (just over the hill) and checked out The Vines Wine & Tapas, which sits right next to the popular Englander restaurant/bar/music venue.

Well, it turns out the quartet was Mike Slack's New Orleans Jazz Band, and they put on an energy-packed show worthy of Bourbon Street. Spun off from the larger San Francisco Feetwarmers, these guys filled the charming, brick-walled, wood-ceilinged venue at just the right volume and intensity to make it possible to talk with the friendly wait staff but at the same time motivate the crowd.

I sat by myself at a small table close to the band. A smiling waitress handed me a single-sheet menu filled with, naturally, wine and tapas offerings. Tapas are appetizers, meant to not distract from conversation in the Spanish cuisine, and they certainly didn't distract from the Jazz.

I ordered two items from the menu of about 27 selections. From the Cheese and Meat section I picked the Manchega cheese made from sheep's milk (creamy good, and it came with raisins, walnuts and slices of baguette. The other was the Garlic Shrimp from the Tapas listing. Delightfully rich, it was five luscious shrimp with garlic sauce on top of baguette slices. Be sure to see the complete menu by clicking the restaurant's link above.

Meanwhile, the band took a break and I was able to talk with them. It was Mike Slack, the leader, on cornet. He used four different mutes for a range of sounds, but always blew strong and true. Louis Armstrong is a major force in Dixieland Jazz and surely was an inspiration. Pete Main deftly handled the clarinet and saxophone, switching off as needed. He also blew strong and sweet, with a warm tone and quick fingers.

In the the rhythm section was Bill DeKuiper strumming a nice Gibson guitar. His chords kept things moving, and his solos were melodic and showed alacrity. I especially liked his Wes Montgomery style octaves. Carrying it all at the bottom was Tom Clark, playing a beautiful blonde string bass. He kept that baby moving throughout, and got plenty of shots at virtuosic solos too on the warm-toned gut strings. He told me he's played for 50 years and you can really tell. All four musicians blended together well, just like the delicious food on the small square and rectangular plates in front of me.

Songs included fast and slow numbers, including the traditional Just a Closer Walk, the Winin' Boy Blues, and a rousing "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" to close the show.

I picked a nice glass of 2007 Baileyana Pinot Noir from Edna Valley, California, which arrived in a large wineglass--the better to enjoy the nose. It was a recommendation from the wait staff. I was full from the food, but decided I'd better sample from the desserts too to make the evening complete. The lava cake with vanilla ice cream was perfect--the cake hot and softly melting in the middle with the ice cream a firm scoop. I came out even with alternating bites!

The entire meal was $33, including tax--quite reasonable. You could have one tapa and skip dessert and it would be downright inexpensive. The music was free, but of course I threw money in the tip jar and bought one of the group's CDs called West End Blues.

The band plans to return to the Vine in October, but you can check their schedule, and the Vines is always there Tuesday through Saturday from 4 to 10 p.m. at 135 Parrott Street in San Leandro.

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