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By Edwin Goei
Two 40 South's cellar reportedly has more than 12,000 bottles of wine stacked floor-to-ceiling and at least a few barrels from which 10-cent tastings are offered, but the reason you want to go is for 32 bottles in particular. The 16 whites and 16 reds in question are hooked up with tubes leading not to a Rube Goldberg-like contraption, but rather a monolithic, computerized, vending machine that separates the formal dining room from the bar. Yes, Two 40 South has relegated the world's most uppity beverage to a machine one associates more with frozen yogurt.
It isn't the first or only establishment in the county to offer such a system, but the concept does what it's intended to do: strip away the formality and the intimidating prospect of ordering wine in a restaurant. Your server presents you with a key card similar to what you receive when you're checking in to a hotel. Then you join the other customers hovering around the dispensers, tapping their chins as they mull typewritten tasting notes. When it's time to make a choice, you grab an appropriate glass from a rack dangling above the machine—a wider goblet for the reds, a narrower one for the whites. Then you insert the card as though you're about to pump gas at a Chevron and push the button for the portion size as though you're picking the octane—either a squirt, a half or full glass. The light on the machine flickers as the spout activates.
Prices range from $2.50 for a single gulp of a Renacer Punto Final Malbec to a $95 pour of an Barbeito Bual 1863 Madeira, bottled when Abraham Lincoln was just two years into his presidency. That something so modern has its hands on something so ancient is anachronism at its coolest. Sure, the 1863 bottle will most likely be gone by the time you read this, but Two 40 South will, without a doubt, replace it with something equally old and prestigious. It needs at least one like it to add gravitas to the collection and be there in case someone decides to impress a date.
But it's that machine that will rule the evening's conversation: It's frivolously fun for a restaurant that would otherwise be very formal. Now that La Vie En Rose is gone, Two 40 South, with its white-linen-covered tables and arched, bricked ceiling emulating an underground Old World cellar, has taken the mantle as Brea's classiest restaurant.
Though a few chefs have changed, the menu has been upgraded from the small shareable dishes offered when it opened a year and a half ago to full-on entrées, serious plates for serious wine. The kitchen now stuffs its duck breasts with hazelnut and apples before rolling them into cylinders and wrapping them in bacon so thin and crisp I initially mistook it for Peking duck skin. The roulade, cut into three pink stumps, is sat atop a soft Kabocha squash puree as blubbery and sweet as pumpkin pie filling. If you weren't told it was poultry, you'd think it the leanest, most tender filet mignon you'd ever had.
Striped bass is served in an almost-bouillabaisse, the two filets of the fish pan-fried until their salty skins crackled; they rest atop steamed clams so they're not soaked by the saffron-tinged broth that's populated with sugary tomatoes gushing juice, pencil-eraser-size nubs of Bilbao chorizo and piquillo peppers. The salmon comes with fregula, shotgun pellet-sized pasta you rarely see outside Sardinia, cooked in what tasted similar to a mustard-based sauce that's a bit too sharp and strong for the fish. There's also a well-done plate of lamb chops with a Riddler-green, herbed, potato puree countering the meat sticks almost as well a glass of pinot noir will.
A swirl of Syrah, as your sommelier/waiter will agree, will make the practically melting hockey pucks of the Point Reyes blue cheese soufflés even more amazing as an appetizer. An excellent albacore-tuna tartare with truffled avocado is zigzagged by saba, a sticky syrup made from grape juice, so maybe a Sauvignon Blanc? Keep in mind it only takes four sampling squirts of even the cheapest wine to rack up $10 at the machine. If you have absolutely no clue, it's probably wise to just ask for a recommendation. As with all technology, these contraptions are nothing without good tech support.