By Hannah Howard
I’ve been in a funk lately. It’s been a really hard week. I’ve found that champagne helps. And Air’s Champagne Parlor definitely helps.
I started to take bubbles seriously as a super eager college student. I landed the best job in the world for a budding cheese and wine nerd, helping open and then waiting tables at Casellula in Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve always loved champagne, but I got to sip salmon-hued rose from Austria, fizzy Gruet Blanc de Blanc, and sparkling shiraz the color of cherry juice. There was nothing better at the end of a long shift: cool carbonation, complex flavors. Bottles popped from all over the world. My bubbly crush blossomed into full-blown bubbly adoration. A decade later, my love is stronger than ever.
No wonder I’m crazy for Air’s, the first solo project for 29-year-old New York native, owner Ariel Arce. Arce was formerly the Wine Director at Riddling Widow and Birds & Bubbles, underground bar destinations in Manhattan beloved for their creative and convivial approach to sparkling wine service and food pairings, respectively.
Think champagne is pricey and stuffy and buttoned up? Arce may just be the one to change your mind. At Air’s, she turns the Champagne paradigm on its head. There’s none of the old-school, old man vibe that was once associated with champagne (the only thing old-school is the music, a nostalgic mix of funk, blues, jazz, Motown and disco). Her staff is compromised by women who know their stuff.
The happy oasis is hidden in the hub that is MacDougal Street. It’s tiny and decked out in deep purple and velvet, bubble-ish lights, palms and Art Deco details. The bottle list features 125 champagnes and sparkling wines with 50 bottles under $50, geeky and niche bottles, and plenty of producers I have never heard of. I love how Arce organizes the sparkling wines by the glass, most of which are totally affordable, by their predominant flavor notes: lemon zest, Fuji apples, smoked strawberries.
Lest champagne seem prohibitively expensive and out of reach, smaller producers are making some beautiful bottles that are much more affordable than those from the big houses and brand names. “The smaller producers don’t have the branding, marketing, and overhead costs,” Arce explains. “It’s wonderful to be in my position. There are so many undiscovered gems that I can choose from.”
Arce has carefully created the food menu to complement champagne, but it stands tall on its own as well. There’s a dish of two fat, sweet prawns in their shells and horseradish remoulade for dipping. Caviar toast arrives on a brioche so pillowy with a blanket of whipped egg so luscious, the caviar itself is icing on the cake (er, on the toast). But the star of the show is the cheese cart, where wedges and wheels are served tableside, including a camembert aged by Hervé Mons that tastes of buttered mushrooms and joy.
“Champagne needs to be demystified,” explains Arce. “It’s not a brand, and it’s not just for celebrations. It’s a wine that’s incredibly gastronomic, in addition to being a geographic region and place of origin in France. But, perhaps most importantly, Champagne is experiential. It has an effervescent personality that defies boundaries and barriers. It brings on the fun!”
Yes, champagne is a requisite for celebrations of birthdays, successes, making it through a long day. But it’s just as good sipped to celebrate the day, just because it’s wonderful, just because we can. Champagne has magical powers to bring out the best in people and celebrations and moments. And when things aren’t feeling too happy, it makes them a little bit better. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be at Air’s, my new favorite spot.
Air’s Champagne Parlor
127 Macdougal Street
New York, NY 10012
Photos: Chia Messina & Jose Espaillat