Jan. 9 2013 12:00 AM

It's hip to be Squared at Lansing's debut wine bar

A paucity of pretension

When someone in our family mentions a good wine they tried recently, the standard response is: “Did you detect notes of baby powder and asphalt?”

It’s an inside joke. Several years back, there was a wine connoisseur whose weekly column’s main objective was to ensure his palate would be enshrined in the pantheon of wine experts, thus rendering mere mortals weak and humble. In one column, he exalted over one wine’s complexities, including notes of baby powder and asphalt.

We gagged. What a pretentious ass.

Which brings us to P Squared, Lansing’s one and only wine bar — and, thankfully, the polar opposite of pretension. This place is about love of wine, the flow of conversation, and a little food on the side to make it all come together.

P doesn’t stand for pretension, but for the names of the two owners, Paul C. Fox and Paul Bussard, who aim to disarm customers who may not know the difference between a shiraz and a shitake mushroom. The menu arrives “pre-stained” with red wine; compliments, apparently, of a tipsy customer from the night before.

Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s also a signal: Kick back. Enjoy. It’s a wine bar, not a bar exam.

Granted, P Squared may try a bit too hard to put customers at ease. Its website insists “we are normal people” and “no snobs allowed.”

But I’ll take that over someone lording over you with their viticulture expertise. P Squared’s approach to customers is straightforward. Servers offer helpful and knowledgeable advice, but they don’t insist that, say, a pinot grigio from California is superior to a Michigan chardonnay. Decide for yourself over time and several visits, which is the adventure of wine-tasting.

If there is anything daunting about P Squared’s menu, it’s the torrent of wine choices. There are 94 wines and champagnes listed. (At ease, beer drinkers, there are 16 brands of brew or cider as well — most, if not all, from Michigan). I tasted 10 wines during two visits, and loved the unoaked chardonnay from Michigan’s Chateau Chantal. Just saying “unoaked chardonnay” makes me feel like that pompous wine columnist ... .

Anyway, unless you know precisely what you want, I recommend one of several wine flights — six different wines to each flight, with each flight roughly amounting to two glasses of wine. And if you’re still bollixed by the wine menu, ask for one of their pair-your-food-with-wine iPads, which can help you navigate the menu.

Hey, buddy, is this a wine column or a food column? Uh, yeah. Let’s move on.

We visited P Squared twice, both on weekday mid-afternoons. The lunch menu is scaled back considerably after 3 p.m. However, we noticed on our second visit that “Bigger Plates” were added for the hungry evening crowd.

The best by far were the tasting plates, a mix-and-match choice of cheeses and smoked meats. The one offering the most variety isn’t cheap — $28 for a total of six choices — but included are plates of olives, bread, toasted pecans with dried cranberries and warm marmalade. The 11 cheese choices range from mild gruyere to Michigan white cheddar, and there are several excellent smoked meats, including a fine prosciutto. Put all that together with a glass of wine and you have a meal, my friend.

Our dinner group was unanimous about the bread. P Squared ought to go shopping for a sturdier, more substantial bread to serve with tasting plates. The ciabatta slices didn’t do justice to the cheese, meats and olives. A good baguette, or that wonderful calabrese bread from Roma Bakery, would do the trick.

A friend also suggested the cheese and meat platter could use a bit more eye appeal, such as a sprig of fresh rosemary nestled with the slices of rosemary ham. Good idea.

On separate visits, we had mixed success with our dining choices. The lobster bisque was sub-par. They should consider starting from scratch. Several area restaurants — Soup Spoon Cafe, Troppo, English Inn — have bisques worth emulating.

The Chicken Bacon Mac was a good choice, with smoky bacon complementing three types of cheeses that are baked with macaroni. I had to send the dish back for a quick warm-up, though.

My dinner companion raved about the beef sliders: slow-roasted beef with pepperocini cheese, artichoke hearts and Roma tomatoes, sandwiched between grilled, thinly sliced panini. Agreed. This was a tasty dish, and the portion was substantial.

P Squared is a newcomer to downtown Lansing. It’s stylish without trying too hard. Black and white photos virtually pop out from red walls. On closer inspection, many of the photos are of corkscrews. Who knew corkscrews could look so artsy?

For small groups, the best seats in the house are a circle of easy chairs surrounding a small, round table. Just the place for sipping, snacking and good conversation.

And not a speck of baby powder or asphalt in sight.

Perfect for the peckish

It goes without saying that P Squared has an extensive wine selection. Therefore, I won’t focus much of this effort on exploring the wine side of the menu, focusing instead on the food that plays a supporting role.

After a much-hyped grand opening a few months ago, I didn’t hear much chatter around town about P Squared — and the chatter I did hear wasn’t quite complimentary. The chief complaint was that the place is expensive — too rich for Lansing’s blood. However, I pushed any preconceived notions out of my mind when I went to meet a girlfriend for lunch. She is a state employee and dabbles in vegetarianism, so many meals are eaten downtown and she is always searching for something veggie-packed, with quality protein.

My attempt to order a club soda was rebuffed when the server informed me that P Squared only carries bottled sodas and doesn’t offer a fizzy water at all. I decided that the next best thing to do would be to rot my teeth with a Faygo Rock & Rye, which was nostalgically pleasing but didn’t last me through my meal. I was seduced by the prospect of making my own mini-sandwiches and ordered the Ploughman’s Lunch — a platter of white cheddar cheese, rosemary ham, ciabatta, mustard, apple slices, pickles, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I requested that my allotment of olives be replaced with extra apples.

The shining stars of the platter were the ham and, surprisingly, the mustard. I love a tangy, eye-watering, grainy mustard, and this one fit the bill. I slathered it onto the ciabatta and loaded it up with ham and cheese, wishing that I had a salt shaker within reach (there were none to be found.) The sad, rapidly browning apples and obviously jarred, uninspired pickles went largely ignored.

My girlfriend decided upon the Pesto Veggie Panini and a cup of chicken and wild rice soup (like I said, she only dabbles in vegetarianism). The soup was extremely thick and gelatinous. It looked unappetizing and I declined her offer of a taste. Her panini, on the other hand, was colorful and jam-packed with fresh vegetables. She loved it, proclaiming that it was “the best panini you can get downtown.”

A few weeks later, I returned for dinner with two friends. One, a fledgling sommelier, had just gotten a book about wine for Christmas and was eager to dazzle us. His wife and I sat bemused as he carefully chose what they would drink and showed us the proper way to taste. He was impressed by the selection and liked what he was drinking.

I didn’t have high hopes after studying the small dinner menu, but we decided to order a wide array of items to share. We chose a tasting plate with three items: the chipotle chicken sliders, pepperoncini roast beef sliders and chips with salsa and guacamole. I like the build-your-own tasting plate option. Diners can choose from a bevy of cheeses and a few charcuterie options, and the plates are finished with wedges of ciabatta and bowls of olives, trail mix and orange marmalade. We chose baby Swiss, gorgonzola and prosciutto, all three of which were fresh and flavorful. The trail mix was an odd addition until we struck upon the idea of slathering the bread with marmalade, then studding it with the salty nuts and cranberries. These little concoctions became table favorites.

Both of the slider varieties were fantastic. The sliders were actually bite-sized pieces of a sliced panini as opposed to most “slider” varieties that require you to unhinge your jaw in order to take a bite. The pepperoncini cheese spread that accompanied the roast beef sliders came in a ramekin for you to exercise discretion over your level of preferred spiciness. I spiced the little babies up well and loved the play between the sliced artichoke hearts, salty and crisp bread, and tender roast beef.

The chipotle chicken sliders were similarly presented, with the chipotle mayonnaise alongside. They were also well-received, and not a single slider remained at the end of our meal.

The chips/salsa/guacamole trio was the only disappointment. The guacamole was very evidently store-bought and lifeless. The fire-roasted salsa had a faintly metallic tinge to it. At least the chips weren’t stale.

Our server was knowledgeable about the wines and the food, a strength that became apparent as soon as we sat down. The former Pita Pit has been beautifully renovated, with cabernet-red walls and a lounge area. As a veteran of the downtown social scene, I would suggest a few unprecedented happy hour specials to boost their audience — maybe a $10 wine flight or $2 glasses? Let’s face it: most people don’t know or care whether they’re swilling Two-Buck Chuck or Opus One. Frankly, I had to Google the latter to make sure that I was invoking the name of something expensive.

The place was fairly empty on the weeknight, but I hope attendance picks up. P Squared offers a fine meal, if you’re feeling peckish.

P Squared Wine Bar
107 S. Washington Square, Lansing
11 a.m.- midnight Mon.–Thurs.;
11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri.; noon-1 a.m. Sat.
(517) 507-5074  |  p2winebar.com
$14-$20, Wine & Beer, Patio, Online Menu, WiFi, Reservations, Take-Out