The name of Susanné Breen’s wine shop and restaurant is deceptively generic. Downtown Wine Merchants suggests an abstraction—a warehouse, perhaps. Or, because of the plural “s,” a group of well-dressed men and women standing by to recommend varieties of pinot grigio and chardonnay. But inside, Breen herself tends to a diner at the bar, helps a customer choose a bottle of wine, takes our lunch order and restocks the cases lining the back wall.
Decorated with vintage French posters, the light and airy corner bistro looks out onto Frank Ogawa Plaza. You can linger over a glass of wine and a charcuterie or cheese board, sample a curated wine flight or create your own custom flight. “People have fun with it,” Breen says. A couple recently came in during the European soccer Championship. The wife chose wines based on past winners and the husband chose his flight by making a list of “disappointing” teams like Germany and France.
Breen, who owns Downtown Wine Merchants with her husband, decided to concentrate on domestic wines. “They have to be from California, Oregon, Washington; some are from New York,” she says. While they do carry some European varietals, Breen doesn’t stock wines from the Southern Hemisphere. “It’s not just the classics,” she says. “We have wines from Turkey and Greece—and I’m doing a flight from Slovenia right now.”
At the beginning of the year, Breen’s chef moved out of the area. “That was a time when we asked ourselves, ‘Do we walk away from this, or do we keep going?’” After a friend recommended Chef Christoher Ahr, they decided to keep going. “It almost seemed like we were opening a new restaurant after Covid,” Breen says.
Ahr’s dishes are beautifully composed and balanced with memorable flavors. A friend of mine who doesn’t like carrots shared a plate of the chef’s roasted baby rainbow carrots with me. Ahr arranged them over dollops of hummus, a preserved lemon crème and the added crunch of halved hazelnuts. Chive oil, fronds of chervil and thick wedges of red and purple radishes made a smoked salmon and asparagus dish taste modern and lively. My pork rib sandwich was piled high, the next size up from a slider. Ahr tells me that he makes the bread dough himself.
“I come in on Monday night to start the bread for the following week,” Ahr says. In addition to flatbread dough, the pork sandwich is served on a milk roll he makes with spelt flour. “It took me a month and a half to get all these doughs right, but it all comes together eventually,” he says. Like Breen in her front-of-house position, Ahr mans the kitchen by himself. “It’s hard to get people who work for you to see what you think,” he says. Over the years, the chef figured out how to communicate his idea of what a dish should look and taste like. But the advantage to working solo is that he’s able to put his personal touch on every plate that leaves the small kitchen.
Along with his coworkers, Ahr was laid off from his job at The Julia Morgan Ballroom during the pandemic. After a few months of unemployment, one of his former bosses recommended the chef to Breen. “He let me know that they were looking for somebody,” he says. And by chance, he happens to live a short 10-minute walk from the cafe.
Ahr shaped the menu with food that “doesn’t overpower a glass of wine.” He didn’t want to make dishes that were heavily seasoned or sauced. “One of my previous employers, at the Pacific-Union Club [in San Francisco], sent me to The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa for food and wine pairing classes,” he says. That experience occurred at the start of his “culinary childhood” here in the Bay Area. At the forefront of his culinary thought process is the influence of both Wine Country and California cuisine—the ingredients are simply prepared, and harmonious.