A whiff of burning candle oil blew past as the large wooden doors of Mystic Grape opened. A crescendo of classic Italian crooner music swelled more loudly with each step inside. Glasses clinked at a bar built to look like a wooden crate. To the right, couples lounged in ornate oak armchairs, while others talked at tall tables. Deep blue, pink and green lights cast colorful shadows against the dark purple walls. Ivy curled around electric orange and yellow art decor. It felt like climbing into a leafy, cool desert oasis. Was this still El Paso?
“Hi, where would you like to sit?” asked a sandy-blonde woman.
My boyfriend and I looked around, a little overwhelmed, looked back at each other, then at the hostess with what must have been a look of puzzlement.
“Have you ever been here before?” she asked with a knowing smile. No, we shook our heads. Her facial expression was warm, welcoming and excited. “Well, let me show you around.”
Nichole Cabral and her husband and co-owner Santiago Cabral greet all their guests with this secret anticipation, like a kid before show-and-tell. At the moment, though, she just seemed like the nicest person in the world. She pulled out a large, black menu, much like any other fine-dining menu.
“Here’s our wine list...” The sound of her voice trailed as the sight of the neon-lit, blue-glowing menu stole all the attention.
“There are more than 110 wines from around the world,” Cabral said. “Some of these wines are available in our dispensers.” She pointed to a series of silver, automatic machines, something off the set of a “Star Trek” movie.
“You just put money on a card at the bar, and then you can buy the wine of your choice by the ounce or glass,” she said.
She took her guests to the dispensers, pointing out each of her favorite wines, hand-chosen from her and Santiago’s decade of world travels. There were wines from South America, France and Italy, some $6 glasses, some $12.
“We tried to incorporate everything we liked about the places we visited, in one place, to try to give people the same experience,” Nichole said.
Since early 2000, Santiago and Nichole have traveled to 16 countries, immersing themselves in the culture and wine of China, Chile, Brazil, Turkey, Romania, Germany, Italy and Japan. When they’d come back from their latest adventure, they’d host wine parties to share their newly acquired knowledge.
“Our friends would say, ‘You’re really good at this. You should open a wine bar.’ And we said, ‘Maybe we should,’” Nichole said.
October marks Mystic Grape’s one-year anniversary in El Paso’s Far East Side, off Joe Battle and Zaragosa. Santiago says they picked the location for a number of reasons. Santiago said he didn’t like the West Side, that “it had been done before.” The Eastside was uncharted, underserved and growing.
“Don’t close your mind to the impossible or unexpected,” Santiago said. “It’s when you look for things out of the ordinary that you’ll discover different things.”
He and his wife have found their wine bar growing each month, attracting fine-dining aficionados, internationals and military couples with big-city taste buds.
“It’s like making a cake,” Santiago said. “It takes time to develop that recipe until you get it perfected.”
Mystic Grape’s recipe mixes in a magical ambience, delicious wine and sexy summer dishes. Main courses consist of garlic plum glazed salmon, lime-crusted tilapia and citrus-herb chicken. Appetizers include the classic meat and cheese plate, crab cakes, sashimi tuna and seafood-stuffed portobello mushrooms. The couple are practicing vegans, so each dish can easily be easily transformed into vegetarian-friendly fare.
Santiago says his goal is to create a rainbow of wine, from smooth and soft to rich and bold.
“The atmosphere and ambience has a lot to do with enjoying the wine experience,” Nichole said.
2270 Joe Battle Boulevard
Tuesday-Wednesday, 4 p.m.–midnight
Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m.–2 a.m.