By Rochelle Bilow, Finger Lakes Food Correspondent
Photos by Stu Gallagher
Passing through Geneva, one might be inclined to write off Opus Espresso and Wine Bar as just another eatery in a college town already saturated with pizza shops and fast-food spots.
Local foodies know better.
Nestled between buildings on the long stretch of downtown Geneva, just an espresso bean's throw from Main Moon Chinese Restaurant and a Philly cheesesteak takeout joint, Opus doesn’t seem like the type of place to be serving up fresh, inspired food with good coffee and great wine. It doesn’t seem like the type of place to make its own granola or serve a breakfast panini with homemade basil pesto, either. And yet. For an eater who demands innovative flavor combinations and a sophisticated, big-city atmosphere to go along with them, Opus just might be the jackpot.
Owners Heather Tompkins and Chelsey Madia began doing business at 486 Exchange St. and haven't stopped moving since. A satellite Opus operates out of Fox Run Vineyards on Seneca Lake until January of 2012 – it opens again in April – and a second satellite recently closed for the season at Rooster Hill Vineyards on Keuka. It’s Tompkins’ and Madia’s hope that they’ll soon have a restaurant on multiple lakes in the region, beckoning wine drinkers with fresh food that pairs well. Their short but snazzy wine list doesn’t hurt either. Fox Run, Rooster Hill and Zugibe represent the region with riesling, gewurztraminer, chardonnay and merlot, but the list reaches as far as Italy and France with a Prosecco and a white Bordeaux.
Armed with rave reviews, I decided to visit Opus for myself on a recent Saturday afternoon. Having gotten a late start for the drive, I found myself careening down 96A at 1:15 p.m., hoping to make it in time for a proper meal before the restaurant closed. I was admittedly skeptical as to how much business a wine bar that stopped service at 2 p.m. could do (their hours have since changed; more on that in a moment), but as I’d heard nothing but praise that bordered on manic dedication, I tried to remain open-minded.
I needn’t have worried. When I arrived shortly before 1:30 p.m., the restaurant was packed. Hip-looking customers, including a man with a fedora and a woman with artfully ripped purple stockings, were perched at tall tables in front of the storefront. Inside, sleepy-sexy music played and a long line of customers hungrily eyed the menu, splashed on the wall from a projector affixed to the ceiling. A list of available sandwiches and salads outlined the day’s offerings, and while most are pre-made, special orders and substitutions aren’t unheard of. I know; I made one. A butternut squash sandwich on ciabatta tempted, but when I asked for cheddar instead of the specified Brie, the staff happily obliged.
Opus does not overlook small details; the salmon in the pickled beet and smoked Gouda sandwich is wild-caught, the onions are gently caramelized on the roast beef and blue cheese, and the house-made macaroni and cheese is topped with candied walnuts – and hey, don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Tompkins says that customers frequently request the cinnamon-cranberry French toast sticks and grilled cheese and tomato soup. “We have a little bit of something for everyone,” she said over the phone, with what I imagined to be a modest sort of shrug. “We think that simple, clean ingredients are the best way to eat.”
The interior of the restaurant has been given the same sort of careful attention. A big, artfully rusted steel OPUS sign welcomes customers, and the lighting weaves and snakes around the ceiling on a lazy track. Head to the restroom at the back of the room, and you might catch a glimpse of the kitchen. It’s a lovely space, separated from the dining room by a door that rarely seems to be closed. It doesn’t look so much like industrial food preparation area as it does child’s whimsical representation of what a kitchen should be, all light and airy and bright.
Until recently, Opus was open only for breakfast and lunch, but they’ve recently put extended hours into action. In addition to the original schedule (Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. -4 p.m. and Saturday, 8 a.m. -2 p.m.), they’re now operating from 5 p.m. -8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights – with plans to extend hours even later in the coming weeks. The new schedule kicked off just last weekend, but the previously abbreviated hours didn’t seem to deter the droves of locals or tourists. In fact, Tompkins explained that it was the onslaught of customers that kept them too busy to expand their business model. But they’re open now, she explained, and excited about the different nighttime vibe.
The evening hours bring a modified menu that leans heavily on made-to-order appetizers and tapas-style dishes, including tartines, fondue and crabcakes. Also worth noting: in a business plan that’s as sure a shot as any, they’re introducing raw oysters next week.
During our phone conversation, Tompkins and Madia’s voices brightened when I asked where they found the inspiration for such an honest, sophisticated and hip restaurant in such an unsuspecting place. “We ate all over,” Madia said before citing Montreal as a direct influence. “It’s an old city with young people.” She paused again, and in the silence I pictured Geneva, with its weathered facades and fresh faces. “You know,” she finished, “We just wanted to build something that reflected us, our taste.”