Smile Politely

Raising the Bar (M)

I’ve never been at the forefront of anything since high school. I always feel like I’m the last to know about something, regardless of what it is or its proximity to me. For instance, I once lived in a co-op and it took me three months to realize I had a new housemate. So imagine my surprise when I cruised into Bar M in Urbana and was told that I was their first official customer.

Opening its doors to dining customers for the first time at 4 p.m. on February 4th, Bar M is tucked away inside the back room of the Flying Machine Coffee/Pizza M Complex in downtown Urbana like some kind of modern speakeasy. I happened to be picking up a coffee in the middle of a bike ride and serendipitously saw a flyer for the opening. I checked my watch and realized I still had about twenty minutes before they technically opened, so I walked around downtown Urbana until my coffee was gone, went back into Pizza M, passed the restrooms, and stepped into the new space.

I was greeted by Kristin Walters, the bar manager and wine buyer for Bar M. When she informed me that if I were interested in having a seat, I’d be their first customer, I felt a burst of elation mixed with a pinch of self-consciousness. I wisely accepted Kristin’s offer and sat down.

The space is interesting. It’s small and cozy, about the size of a couple of living rooms stuck together, and with its mix of the bar, a few dining tables, and some sofas and chairs arranged around a coffee table, it feels like it could accommodate anything. I could imagine sitting in the corner on the sofas with some friends, or at one of their tables with a date, or (as I did during my visit) at the bar. The decor is a blend of streamlined order and chaos. It feels half Korova Milk Bar and half Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s like 1960s Mod meets Bauhaus. There are beautifully patterned wood tables, streamlined aluminum chairs, chrome furniture, and white paint mixed with eclectic and juxtaposing art. For instance, the first thing I noticed as I entered was the huge mural which stretched across three walls. Crafted by C-U native Langston Allston, the mural struck me as a sprawling fever-dream done in black against a stark white background. Every square inch of the mural is dynamic and engaging and I’m sure I could have spent hours staring at it, but that’s not why I was there.

As I sat at the bar, the stereo played some smooth jazz that I couldn’t name. The TV screen above the stacks of glassware behind the bar was playing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Perhaps that film alone biased me toward liking the place — I don’t know — but it was a welcome departure from the insurance ads and golf games that are usually playing at bars.

“This whole thing got put together really fast,” Kristin told me. “Maybe in about two months. We were really quick about it.” Kristin was originally hired as a Pizza M employee, but when the owner Matthew Kitzmiller found out she had experience with wine, he informed her that he was contemplating opening up a wine bar behind Pizza M and recruited her to help him realize the dream.

“We’re hoping we can fill the void left by Buvon’s and Art Mart,” she said of the now-closed wine bar and the kitchen supply/food/wine shop that abandoned the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana for greener pastures in the C part of C-U, respectively.

I settled in and took a look at the menu. It’s small and efficient, featuring only small plates, salads, and a couple of desserts. I was informed that if anyone so desires, the entire Pizza M menu is also available. I decided to stick with their specialties and glanced over the list. There were the ever-present cheese and meat-and-cheese plates, simple salads, and flavored nuts, but the two items that caught my attention and the attention of my salivary glands were the Scotch Egg and the Peppadews ($7 each). I ordered them both immediately.

In case you don’t know, a traditional Scotch Egg is a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and then battered and deep-fried. It’s literally not for the faint-hearted, but if you can manage to eat even a little bit of one, I think it’s a worthwhile experience.

Peppadew is the trademarked name of a species of sweet peppers grown in South Africa. The version offered by Bar M is stuffed with goat cheese and topped with chives, chopped walnuts, and a balsamic reduction.

Kristin informed me that there was a wine special for their opening night. There was a particular wine which she had tasted while shopping for what to stock, and had fallen in love with it. The wine was the “Sciaglin Spumante” Extra Dry from the Emilio Bulfon winery in the Pordenone province of Italy, and the special was that I could purchase the wine by the glass (instead of by the bottle). I won’t pretend to be a wine expert, but as an extra dry, bubbly white wine, it reminded me of Prosecco. However, it was definitely not a Prosecco. It was sweeter than the Brut Proseccos I have had (clearly it would be, as an extra dry) and far less bubbly. It tasted light and a bit tart (like green apples) and felt like a wine that I should have been having as part of a celebration.

Kristin is very knowledgeable about wines, and therefore wine is the focus of Bar M. They don’t have a tremendous number of wines on hand, but those they do have have been curated well. Although you may go and discover that they do not have your absolute favorite type of wine in the world, Kristin assures me that she and the rest of the team have tried to ensure that there is something for almost anyone to enjoy.

In addition to the carefully chosen wine list is the beer selection. Although Bar M only has three beers on tap (at the time of my visit they were Hamm’s, Stone IPA, and Big Muddy Vanilla Stout), they have quite a few bottled beers. Using experience gained through Pizza M and otherwise, the beer list has also been carefully chosen to include something to satisfy a variety of tastes. Absent from the list of beer and wine is anything that seemed outrageously strange or pretentious.

“That’s my goal,” Kristin told me, “I want Bar M to be intimate and unintimidating. I want Bar M to be an approachable, fun place where people will feel welcome and comfortable.” Settling into my glass of wine and watching “Metropolis” as “A Boy Named Sue” played over the stereo, I felt that they had succeeded.

My small plates came out of the kitchen quicker than I anticipated. The presentation was very nice — admittedly better than I had expected for a wine bar behind a pizza shop, which is either saying something about their skill or my standards. Kudos to the chefs in their kitchen!

The Scotch Egg came in two halves, one on either side of a ribbon of stone ground mustard. The egg was sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper and the plate came accented with a couple leaves of lettuce. Much to the chef’s credit, it was not dripping in oil like other Scotch Eggs I have had, but rather felt clean on the palate. The sausage was nicely spiced, and the mustard contributed  a secondary kick that I thoroughly enjoyed. The only complaint I had was that it arrived a few degrees cooler than I would have preferred. However, as I was eating, Matthew Kitzmiller (in the flesh!) came from the kitchen to talk to those of us in the restaurant. While asking me how the food was, he beat me to the punch by admitting that he was concerned that my Scotch Egg (the first they had ever served!) had cooled too much before being presented. He took my agreement in stride, apologized, and promised that they would definitely be ironing out the wrinkles after their first day, only improving over time.

After a few bites of the egg, I tried the Peppadews. I had never had a Peppadew before, and I suppose I was expecting something spicier. To be fair, I’m the kind of person who likes my hot sauce to be able to chew a hole through the napkin. Instead, the peppers were mild and sweet (to me, that is — though others may find them a bit spicy), with their sweetness further accented by the goat cheese and the balsamic reduction. I’ll admit that I don’t usually enjoy goat cheese, but structured in this way with the peppers, I think it worked marvelously.

I saved room to order their profiterole ($7), a cream puff filled with their homemade vanilla ice cream, and chatted with Kristin about the place while I waited. Specifically, I asked if there were any specials coming up.

“We really want every weekend to feel like it’s special,” she told me. “We want people to feel like there’s something worth celebrating, some reason to come in and enjoy themselves.” I then remembered the special event occurring the following weekend (last weekend at this point) and asked about it specifically.

“For Valentine’s day, we are definitely taking reservations for that Saturday, the 13th,” she explained with a broad smile. “And, we will be having a wine special. We will be getting a shipment of half-bottles from Gruet winery in New Mexico.” The wines were of a champagne style, in classic Valentine’s Day tradition. Hopefully, the half-bottles made it easier for guests to finish, leaving them with enough sobriety for any after-dinner activities.

The profiterole came out of the kitchen quickly. I had never had a cream puff before, and I was glad that I had saved room. The ice cream was delicious, the pastry was fluffy, and remarkably, the combination did not become rubbery or soggy even as the ice cream melted (though I’ll admit I didn’t give it much time to do so).

I chatted with Kristin some more about the future of the restaurant as I cleaned the last bits of melted ice cream from my plate. I asked if they would ever consider adding liquor to their menu.

“It’s a possibility,” she said, “We might think about adding a small craft cocktail menu, but right now the focus is definitely on beer and wine.” She thought for a bit and added, “Maybe we could do some punches? Maybe some wine-and-beer mixed drinks?”

I finished up what I could of my food, packed the remainder to take home with me, and began to pay my bill and say goodbye (for the time being, anyway). As I was about to leave, satiated and content, I took one more glance at Metropolis on the TV screen. A picture of two bible pages with an elaborate woodcut was showing, adorned with a truncated translation of the German verse (Revelation 17:6) in a subtitle box at the bottom. The text was as appropriate as I could have ever hoped for: “And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of saints.”  I hope that Bar M has the chance to pleasantly inebriate many people, for it could breathe some life into the tried-and-true Urbana bar scene if given the opportunity.

Bar M is located at 208 West Main Street in Urbana and open Thursday through Saturday from 4-11 pm. If you’d like to get more information about Bar M, you can join their mailing list by emailing, or checking them out on Twitter or Instagram.

Photos by Sam Logan. 

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