Wine café follows new money south

by Brian Clarey

There aren’t any hookers on this stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard anymore, at least none of the streetwalking variety. In their place stand banks of weathered brick townhomes with stoops and wrought iron balconies reminiscent of Georgetown, New Orleans and certain parts of New York City; a neighborhood of single-family homes made to look like they were built a hundred years ago; a plaza-style fountain that gets lit up at night.

Oh yeah, Southside is full-on gentrified, with street-level businesses like the flower shop, the personal gym, the web designer.

And finally there’s a restaurant in this picturesque byway in the shadow of the downtown skyline. Or, to be more precise, a café.

The Press Wine Café is exactly what it bills itself as: a boutique drinkery with a cozy atmosphere, some outdoor seating, an exciting menu (more on that in a bit) and a wine list that would make even the most seasoned oenophile raise an eyebrow or two.

“I spent a lot of time on the other side of the bar,” says Mike Hamuka, a mergers and acquisitions specialist from Long Island and a newly-minted restaurateur who owns the space with partners Aaron James and Michael Hand. He’s talking about the drinking side.

Hamuka lives in Southside with his wife Liz and their daughter Madeline (who, at 2 years of age, says that her neighborhood looks like Sesame Street).

“This is a great community-involvement type of business,” Hamuka says. “We’re giving back, doing some charity work. This restaurant is for the community.”

Southside yuppies will find much to love about the place, beginning with the appearance. It occupies the ground floor in a corner building that looks like it could be on Rue Chartres, with big windows affording views of the cityscape. Going inside feels like climbing into a big glass of cabernet, with wine-colored walls, muted track lighting and a tiny L-shaped bar. Local art hangs from every open space – Hamuka says he’ll rotate the work every few weeks – and a family of sofas forms a den in one corner.

It’s a place made for hanging out, sloughing off the stresses of the workday and partaking the wonders of the grape.

There are hundreds of labels on the Press’ wine list, with about a hundred available by the glass. The prices of the reds range from a $3 2005 Alice White merlot to a $20 glass of 2002 Jordan cabernet sauvignon, which means that there’s something for every taste and budget.

And while wine is the primary reason for this place’s existence, the cuisine should get Greensboro foodies buzzing.

To handle the menu, Hamuka enlisted a proven talent, Stephanie McClain-Long, formerly the proprietor of the Paisley Pineapple and Sofa Bar, which for a time was the premier dining room and booty-shaking emporium in downtown Greensboro before it burned down in the summer of 2003 and eventually became the juggernaut known as Natty Greene’s.

McClain-Long has been quiet since the fire.

“I was waiting on a good opportunity to come along,” she says. “This was a good thing.”

To complement the wine, she’s created a menu consisting of a couple soups and made-to-order dips, a handful of salads, panini sandwiches, pizzas and a list of tasty items billed as “Shareable Treats” which I find exciting, and not just because “shareable” is spelled right.

Bruschetta. Olive tapenade. Baked brie and an onion tart. A tapestry of phyllo creations. Melon with prosciutto and mozzarella. Cheese plates crafted to accompany red or white wines. Pate. Pate! Three kinds of it!

Luxurious? Certainly, but affordably so. Menu items at the Press top out at about $15.

Hamuka, who still holds his M&A gig with IBM, says he’s in the business not to get rich, a position many independent restaurateurs in this town will envy as they struggle to compete against the newest wave of chain eateries the townsfolk love so well.

“This is not for profit for us,” he says. “We’re giving back.”

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