Downtown Crossing’s fortunes have brightened a lot since the bad old days of the Filene’s Hole. Nowadays, swank restaurants are debuting all over the neighborhood, the most recent of which is haley.henry, a pocket-sized wine bar just around the corner from the gleaming new Millennium Tower skyscraper. First-time owner Haley Fortier, a Barbara Lynch Gruppo veteran, has packed an enormous amount of charm, fun and good eating into a narrow spot with just 18 bar seats and a couple of four-tops.
It leads with a brilliant idea: Fortier will open any of its 51 bottles ($36-$180, most under $60) if you buy two glasses at half the bottle price. With another six by-the-glass options ($11-$15) and three sherries ($7-$13), it’s much easier to take a dive deep into its eclectic, mostly-small-producer, biodynamic-leaning list. That led us to beauties like the 2015 Eraldo Revelli Dolcetto Rosata ($26/half bottle), a lightly sweet Northern Italian rosé with a funkily alkaline middle, a 2013 Tenuta Tarraviva ($24/half), a ferociously tart orange wine, and the 2015 Rado Kocijancic Refosk ($22/half) from Slovenia, a light-bodied, garnet draft of sour-cherry chewiness and bracing acid. There are also a dozen beers ($5-$14) and one amaro, the clovey/licoricey German bitters Underberg ($4).
For simple, savory accompaniment, you could start with Not Your Grandpa’s Nuts ($7), a fancy mix of sweet/hot glazed nuts. But chef de cuisine Carolina Curtin (another Gruppo alumna) has assembled a Greatest Hits of 21st Century Grazing, and few wine-laced journeys are more pleasant than with a charcuterie board (three meats for $21, five for $32) with standouts like darkly creamy chicken liver mousse, a slate of Mangalica ($18), which tastes like fancier air-cured Spanish hams at a nicer price, or a cheese board (three cuts for $20, five for $30) served at the right temperature with chefly accompaniments like housemade almond butter and candied fennel.
An attractively composed salad of roasted carrots ($14) combines papery slices and whole carrots with a carrot-top pistou, some coriander-scented, yogurt-like kefir underneath and headily earthy sprouted lentils. Raw options include a mild, tender lamb tartare ($11) topped with peak-season blackberries and arugula, plus a shower of shaved bottarga, the ocean-redolent condiment of Sardinia: pressed, dried, long-cured grey mullet roe sack. This odd-sounding foodstuff is borderline magical, best experienced unadorned in bread, butter & bottarga ($6), where its briny funk and rich, Maine-lobster-like umami comes through. There’s also one spectacular panino ($15), a juicy chicken breast crumbed in crushed potato chips with tomato, arugula and aioli, press-grilled between good multigrain bread.
That leads us to haley.henry’s main event, its selection of tinned seafoods, each served in its opened can on a slate with an array of accompaniments. You take the foundation (fresh bread or ridged potato chips), smear it with a condiment (an herb or espelette aioli, or coarse-grained mustard, or butter), add fresh parsley, then the seafood, then sprinkle on some fresh lemon juice and flaky sea salt: voila, mini-tartine.
Set aside your preconceptions of wan American canned tuna or crummy pizza-topping anchovies: These seafoods are the work of artisans revered in their native Spain, Portugal and the Azores. They range from quite mild and not especially salty or smoky to intensely flavored enough to make you dizzy, but all make for a hugely fun roundelay of flavors to mix and match with those lovely wines.
On the mild side, there are sardines in oil and lemon ($22) and chub mackerel ($18) from Lisbon, both far less oily and funky than novices might expect, or sweet, firm-fleshed tuna in molho cru sauce ($19) from the Azores. Meatier and richer are choices like Portuguese octopus in garlic and olive oil ($28) and the lightly fiery smoked oysters in habanero ($16) from Washington State (a rare quality American purveyor), though smoking gives oysters an almost chalky texture. American smoked mussels ($14) offer little nuggets of concentrated smoke and sea, potato chips offering both a practical vessel and a nicely salty counterpoint. Two highlights include smoked eels ($18) from Lisbon, not so far off from the beloved unagi of Japanese cuisine, and for advanced tinned-seafood eaters, Spanish anchovies in olive oil ($27), deep red in color and so concentrated in flavor—in the way strong blue cheeses or great dark chocolate can be—you might swoon. If you think you’ve been around the world but don’t know first-rate canned seafood, here’s where to get to know it.
GM Kristie Weiss (also ex-Gruppo) oversees a genial, warm staff that clearly loves the wine and food yet understands the need to educate locals on a novel concept. At peak periods, the tiny, vaguely nautically themed room, which crams its entire kitchen behind the bar, with wine storage and larder occupying an overhead loft, offers pretty tight quarters, but it’s airy overhead and light-filled enough with its wall of street-facing windows to avoid claustrophobia and unbearable decibel levels. DTX is about to see a surge of well-heeled, far-traveled new neighbors who grok that beautiful wines and canned fish can be a luxury; haley.henry is perfectly poised to welcome them. You might want to elbow in yourself before the mobs arrive.
Bread, butter & bottarga
Chicken-potato chip panino
Da Morgada smoked eels
Ekone Oyster Company smoked mussels
Jose Gourmet octopus in garlic and olive oil
Santa Catarina tuna in molho cru sauce
Codesa anchovies in olive oil
haley.henry 45 Province St., Boston (617-208-6000) haleyhenry.com; Hours: Mon.-Fri., 3 pm-1 am; Sat., 11:30 am-1 am; Reservations: No; Parking: Nearby garages, valet, metered street spaces; Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials