NYC's Ruffian Wine Bar Is An Unassuming Culinary Powerhouse

Since opening its doors in 2016, Ruffian has cemented itself as one of the best natural wine bars in the U.S. The wine bar-restaurant is a Michelin Bib Gourmand boasting art, culture, and international influence, particularly from Southern France and Eastern Europe. Michelin Guide calls Ruffian "tiny but mighty" and "popular with industry types" — which, if you've ever worked in the industry, you'll recognize as the high praise it is. 

The indoor bar only seats 19, per The Infatuation, but an outdoor bar and indoor dining room were added in 2021 to accommodate more guests. Still, even after the expansion, Ruffian is a decidedly small establishment, which only increases its prowess as a giant in the wine world.

Patrick Cournot, owner and sommelier, tells Tasting Table that he is proud Ruffian pioneered the orange wine and natural wine movements that swept the industry in the past few years. (The New York Times and Decanter list natural wine as a top trend, accruing a growing audience in 2022.) Ruffian's current wine menu boasts more than 35 orange wines and over 250 total offerings. 

Cournot says bars like Ruffian — "natural wine-leaning with small but ambitious food menus" — have helped small-batch, artisanal natural wine break onto the scene and stay there, especially in competitive foodie markets like NYC. Like natural wine itself, says Cournot, Ruffian is a small, self-financed, creative endeavor; The fact that it's Ruffian's star menu item seems (for lack of a better word) very natural.

An artistic flair

Step into Ruffian (located just off Avenue A in Manhattan's East Village), and you'll enter an amalgamation of music, art, wine, and food. The bar is painted in the same textured white hue you might find on art gallery walls, an uncomplicated background meant to highlight the unique color and opacity of the wine in your glass. Cournot's wife, Elena, serves as the art curator and painted the horse portrait that has become Ruffian's official mascot. 

Cournot describes Ruffian as "a celebration of Eastern European wine and East Village style." Menus are built on conceptual ideas rather than culinary conventions. Past inspirations include "Royal Habsburgs of the late 1800s, Greenwich Village musicians from the '80s, or books like Homer's 'The Odyssey.'" This abstract idea enables a more creative, avant-garde collection of wines and plates — and indeed, the ideas seem to be flowing. Ruffian's wine list changes four times a year. 

The summer 2022 menu was inspired by Homer's "The Odyssey," fall the Austro-Hungarian Empire, winter "From the Cradle (The Caucasus and Levant)," and spring 2023 NYC fashion, a collection of whatever new, exciting offerings are hitting the city at the time. Per The Infatuation, even the categories on Ruffian's wine menu are creatively named; Previous menus included sections for "Beach Sipping," "Stoop Sipping," and "Tompkins Park," with reds categorized as "Rootsy," "Bloody," or "Kool-Aid."

Vegetarian bites and international wines

At Ruffian, says Cournot, a flexible, customizable experience is the name of the game. Folks can pass through for just a glass of wine or sample small plates from their mostly vegetarian à la carte menu — which has since expanded to a vegan and gluten-free menu as well. The wine bar also offers a four-course tasting menu. Like the wine, Ruffian's food menu also frequently changes. According to Michelin Guide, braised fennel with kosho aïoli and red pepper purée has been featured, along with roasted carrots with ginger labneh and honeycomb. Raving Yelp reviews praise the chicken liver toast, smoked olives, and sunchokes.

As the bar's sommelier, Cournot sometimes travels abroad to scout new wines for Ruffian's extensive yet highly selective menu. Dato's Chkhaveri, a pink wine from the Republic of Georgia, and Asrllc Sev Areni, a rare natural wine from Armenia, have both appeared on Ruffian's menu. 

Beverage director Emily Gutierrez, Cournot's business partner Alexis Percival, and Cournot discover compelling new blends on their own time, while every Wednesday, the team holds dedicated tastings with NYC-based distributors. For fans who want to learn more, Ruffian also hosts wine-tasting events and wine classes.