By Dan Radil
It might be difficult to envision a first-class restaurant in the sleepy Eastern Washington town of Prosser, WA. The area has deep agriculture roots and a more recent history of premium winemaking, but dining options generally consist of the usual assortment of fast-food, grab-and-go establishments located a stone’s throw off Interstate 82.
The beautifully landscaped grounds of Wine O’Clock Wine Bar & Bistro give you a hint as to the atmosphere (and wonderfully crafted food selections) you’ll find in the inside of the building.
Not so with Prosser’s Wine O’Clock Wine Bar & Bistro, where husband-and-wife Ron and Susan Bunnell have avoided the formulaic recipe for most restaurants in this area and have created a uniquely local venue that offers an unforgettable food and wine experience.
The first thing that jumps out at you at Wine O’Clock is the upscale “feel” of the place. Yes, the clientele is clad mostly in casual attire; but the sights and sounds remind you of being in a restaurant you’d find in a major metropolitan area. The wait staff is constantly on the move, the kitchen is hopping, and wine glasses are never empty for long…and that’s exactly how it should be.
During a spring visit to the bistro, my dining partner, Zacchoreli, and I were greeted and seated promptly near the restaurant’s wood-fired oven in the midst of a bustling Saturday evening dinner crowd. Wine O’Clock lets you know up front that it’s first and foremost an extension of The Bunnell Family Cellar’s tasting room. And that means your wine selection in the restaurant is going to be limited to only the wines that they produce. In other words, you won’t find anything French, Italian or even something from another Washington winery on the wine list.
Cozy, comfortable, classy. That’s the feeling patrons come away with after having lunch or dinner at Wine O’Clock Wine Bar & Bistro. Seating is limited so it’s best to call ahead to make sure they can accommodate you. Photo by Dan Radil.
Normally, this might be a bit of a sticking point for me. But the Bunnells have given their diners such an incredible array of well-crafted current releases and library wines to choose from, there’s absolutely no reason to complain. Our server, Paul Samson, pointed out the three different labels that are offered: The Wine O’Clock label, The Bunnell Family Cellar label, and Newhouse Family Vineyards label. The latter is a joint venture between this Yakima Valley-based winery and the Bunnells. “We are seriously committed to showcasing the breadth and depth of our wines,” Susan proclaims. “Our wine list features multiple vineyard-designated selections of many varietals with a library that goes back to 2004.” (Ron Bunnell is the winemaker behind all three labels).
Although the restaurant encourages you to try its monthly wine flights to maximize your tastings, we decided to have some fun and let Paul choose the wines to serve with each course. For starters, he recommended a Newhouse Family Vineyards 2015 Aligoté from Snipes Mountain to pair with our appetizer of asparagus and mascarpone cheese. Asparagus can be a challenge for any white wine, but the stems were cooked to perfection and nicely complemented by the Aligoté’s field flower aromatics, Granny Smith apple flavors, and finish of lime zest. Score one for our server.
Wine O’Clock’s gazpacho starts with a super dark, super rich tomato base that’s filled with finely chopped shallots, garlic and cucumber. Paired with Wine O’Clock’s 2015 Sangiovese, it’s superb. Photo by Dan Radil.
Next up: gazpacho, which can easily be pureéd to death and turned into a bowl of characterless, cold soup. But there’s no chance of that here, because this incredible gazpacho starts with a super dark, super rich tomato base that’s filled with finely-chopped shallots, garlic, and cucumber. These fresh, added ingredients resembled cous cous pearls and gave the soup a wonderful, crunchy texture.
Paul recommended pairing the soup with the Wine O’Clock 2015 Sangiovese. The wine’s natural acidity, along with its sweet cedar and slightly smoky undertones, proved to be another terrific match.
We then were treated to prosciutto-wrapped shrimp as an off-the-menu, Chef’s Special choice. The seafood was decoratively served with delicious fiddlehead ferns, scallions and edible flowers and paired with the Bunnell Family Cellars 2013 Hélène, a rich, full-bodied blend of 60-percent Viognier and 40-percent Roussanne that displays gentle stone fruit flavors and a slightly creamy finish.
For our entrées, Zacchoreli ordered the halibut, while I decided to opt for the beef and a more substantial red. After the dishes reached our table, one bite of his halibut almost made me wish I had changed my mind. The halibut was cooked beautifully – firm with a slightly creamy center – and served with tiny, white beans in a smoky, bacony, cream sauce alongside stems of broccoli rabe al dente. A pairing with the recommended Bunnell Family Cellars 2013 Grenache, with understated cherry flavors, a hint of smokiness, and vibrant finishing acidity was nothing short of amazing.
Perfectly cooked fresh halibut in cream sauce with broccoli rabe is an example of the creative dishes you’ll find on Wine O’Clock Wine Bar & Bistro’s always changing menu. Photo by Dan Radil.
But not to be outdone, my entrée of beef tenderloin, served with Paul’s choice of a Bunnell Family Cellars 2012 Snipes Mountain Fete, a blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, also proved to be spectacular. The beef was accompanied by a mound of truffle mashed potatoes and perfectly pureéd beets and the trio of flavors was an outstanding complement to the wine’s super-dark cherry flavors and big, meaty texture.
The restaurant also specializes in artisan pizza, but at that point there was absolutely no way we had room left for even a small slice. Our overindulgence also precluded us from trying something from the petite, but tantalizing dessert menu. Perhaps on our next visit.
The menu changes weekly at Wine O’Clock, making it difficult to come back on a return visit and find an “old favorite.” The payoff, however, is a fresh slate of menu items to choose from each time and also knowing that the kitchen is always using the best seasonal ingredients, frequently prepared with the Bunnell’s fully-stocked wine cellar in mind. “Changing a bit of our menu every week not only varies the offerings for our regulars, “ Susan explains, “but it keeps us from getting bored too. We take full advantage of the amazing famers’ markets that take place weekly in Prosser and Richland to source an abundance of locally grown garden produce.”
As for us, our visit to Wine O’Clock proved to be memorable in every respect: great food, great wines, great service. Even in the small town of Prosser, it’s nice to know this gem of a restaurant is available to those in search of a first-class culinary experience in the heart of Eastern Washington’s wine country.
Full Disclosure: I identified myself as a wine writer for DiscoverWashingtonWine.com prior to making my reservation. With the exception of the complementary Chef’s Special, my dining partner and I paid for the food we ordered from the menu.
WINE O’CLOCK WINE BAR & BISTRO: Wine flights and dining available Thursday through Monday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Located in Vintners Village at 548 Cabernet Court, Prosser, WA. Wine O’Clock has limited seating (30 – 36 seats in the bistro) and can become fully reserved very rapidly, so reservations are recommended. Phone: (509) 786-2197. Website: www.bunnellfamilycellar.com.
BUNNELL FAMILY CELLAR’S WOODINVILLE TASTING ROOM: For wine enthusiasts who don’t have the time to travel all the way to Prosser to enjoy Bunnell Family Cellar’s wines, there’s good news. Bunnell has a tasting room in Woodinville, WA. Their Newhouse Tasting Salon is located at 19501 144th Ave. N.E., Suite C-800, Woodinville, WA 98072. Phone: (425) 286-0964.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Radil is a freelance wine writer and educator based in Bellingham, WA., and has been an avid follower and supporter of the Washington wine industry since the mid-1980s. He currently contributes to Wine Press Northwest and Bellingham Alive Magazine, is President of the Whatcom Beer & Wine Foundation, and produces a wine blog called: danthewineguy.com.