It's safe to say Evan Turner is excited: "I'm like a little kid in the back seat of the car, bouncing up and down going, 'Are we there yet?' 'Are we open yet?'"
Sommelier Turner, lately of Helen Greek Food and Wine and Emmaline, is talking about the upcoming Atlas Restaurant Group's Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar, set to open on Monday, June 17. He's taking on the role of beverage director.
"In the 15 years that I've been in Houston, one thing I've learned is that Houston diners are wildly imaginative and wildly ready to experiment with wine," he says.
Turner's long held the notion that his love for all things Greek can be passed on to others, whether fellow colleagues or diners. And he feels his whole life, both in Greece and working in the hospitality industry, has led him to this role with Ouzo Bay. He's looking forward to using his accumulated knowledge, as well as his extensive contacts in the Greek wine industry, to create an experience unlike others in the city.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Turner's tenure at either Helen or Emmaline, or Branch Water Tavern or 17 at the Alden Hotel, for that matter, knows he considers himself a self-appointed Greek wine evangelist, preaching the gospel of why everyone should drink Greek wine. Anywhere he's worked, he's incorporated wines from his beloved Greece — he lived there as a child and has vivid memories of the food, flavors and people who would go on to shape his life — onto the wine lists. With Ouzo Bay, he's amassing a collection of 300 wines. Around 225 of them are Greek.
"But I'm still going to bug [Eric Smith, who, together with his brother Alex, head up Atlas] until we have a one-hundred-percent Greek wine list or until [he] fires me," he jokes.
"Evan's done such a great job putting his passion behind these wines," says Smith. "And what he's done with our staff in terms of training has been incredible."
The whole thing, as far as Turner's concerned, gives him a playground where he can bring his passion for Greek wine to a larger audience. Still, realizing the power-dining aspect that comes with any River Oaks address, Turner's made it a point to include familiar grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay on this list. He's just brought them from Greece. He's also got items from Eastern Spain, from Italy, and from the U.S.
"The idea, though, is not only to keep the Mediterranean theme of the restaurant — it's still called Ouzo Bay — but look at wines that echo what Greeks did through the ages that gave us wine as we know it."
He's bringing on board some of his favorite Greek wine producers and families to craft a list that reflects both his unrelenting passion and options that will pair well with Ouzo Bay's fare. One of those is the Kir Yianni Kali Riza made with 100 percent Xinomavro grapes.
"It's jammed with flavor and subtlety, and is distinctly Greek," he says. "It's finally available here in the U.S., and I am excited we'll be pouring it by the glass."
There's also the Domaine Zafierakis Chardonnay, grown on the slopes of Mount Olympus.
"It's knee-bucklingly good," says Turner. "Think, good like the finest Burgundies. And we're the only people in Texas, maybe the U.S., serving it by the glass."