On Wine and Food Matching:

There are no rules! Try everything and see what you like. Forget the old "red with meat, white with fish"-it's completely irrelevant. Instead, if you live in a climate like the Northeast, you might make a seasonal choice: red in winter, white in summer. But a good wine will carry any dish.

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Liquid Assets, Corks wine bars

For those ill at ease in local watering holes, two new wine bars put a different spin on unwinding after work or kicking off the weekend.

The opening of Liquid Assets and Corks — respectively in August and September — is a sure sign that the worldwide wine-bar craze is catching on locally. In addition to plying patrons with featured vintages, these establishments serve up tasty snacks and stock an array of bottles for purchase.

The upscale atmosphere at Ashland's Liquid Assets, along with a menu to rival any Ashland eatery in quality and creativity, seems to have cemented a loyal following. The wine bar situated kitty-corner from the town's plaza was surprisingly busy at 8 p.m. on a recent Friday, considering Ashland's restaurant scene is headed into the off-season.

Because we were expecting another person to join us, my friend and I passed up one of the plush couches overlooking North Main Street in favor of a table, which afforded a prime view of the wine bar's latest art display. Familiar with Liquid Assets' menu, we were in the mood for a light meal with our drinks. We settled on an appetizer of duck mousse ($8), a Mediterranean panini ($10) and a cheese plate ($13). I also ordered the featured flight of Spanish reds ($15) while my friend made do with an $8 glass.

Leery of the mousse, she conceded to try a dab with the accompanying mustard only to go back for more. The velvety paté with its delicate rind of port gelatin was served with crusty baguette slices and a refreshing radicchio and frisee salad.

The remaining plates arrived in short order, eliciting our only complaint for the evening. The bar's tables are simply too small for more than one plate of food and a wine flight. But the flavors presented make up for any inconvenience.

The panini's pesto, grilled zucchini, roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts paired well with my first sample of tempranillo.

Ample portions of French Bucheron, Petit Basque and Saint Nectaire were showcased with more bread, salad and a few dried cranberries in the cheese course. Liquid Assets usually stocks eight or so domestic and imported varieties, and patrons get their pick.

After consuming more fat in one meal than we likely had all week, we figured "Why stop?" and ordered the pumpkin cheesecake ($8). The miniature cake almost looked like a pumpkin, my friend commented. And with its pool of caramel sauce and whipped cream, it's easy to see why it had been a best-seller.

Unlike Liquid Assets, Corks' cozy, red-painted space is reminiscent of someone's living room, rather than an art gallery. The fact that staff don't wear uniforms adds to the relaxed feel. Located in downtown Medford's Vogel Plaza, Corks has about five tables indoors and just as many outdoors under a large heater. This wine bar also has proved popular, even on weeknights.

As one would expect, prices are slightly lower here than in Ashland — $4 to $7 per glass compared with $7 to $11.

Corks' food, however, isn't as satisfying and seems a lesser value than Liquid Assets'. We ordered crostini and fruit and cheese plates (each $9) and tacked on the olive blend ($3) to go with our glasses of 2002 Griffin Creek Pinot Gris ($5), 2003 Strangeland Pinot Noir ($7) and 8-Ball Stout beer ($4).

The crostini's tomato, artichoke and feta toppings provided adequate variety but tasted like they came out of a jar. A heartier portion, the fruit and cheese plate almost justified the price. Yet the pear wasn't quite ripe, and the Irish cheddar and Parmesan cheeses were a little too ordinary.

Another wine bar yet to open less than a block away may up the ante. Work continues inside the space slated for 38 on Central, but owners promise enough space for 60 diners and another 35 or 40 in the bar. How two wine bars can survive in such close proximity may give patrons pause, but at least presents the chance to go wine-bar hopping.

­-- Sarah Lemon

Liquid Assets Wine Bar and Bottle Shop, 96 N. Main St., Ashland, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Food is served until midnight. Call 482-9463.

Corks Wine Bar and Bottle Shop, 235 Theater Alley, Medford, is open from 1 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and from 1 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Call 245-1616.
Word of Mouth: Dining out with the Mail Tribune. Liquid Assets Wine Bar and Bottle Shop, 96 N. Main St., Ashland, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Food is served until midnight. Corks Wine Bar and Bottle Shoppe, 235 Theater Alley, Medford, is open 1-8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 1-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

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