I waited a while before going to Juniors Wine Bar, the Federal Hill spot that once housed the tiny and wildly popular Italian wine bar Vespa. Maybe that's because, many weeks after it opened at the end of last year, there were still reports that Juniors had yet to hit its stride.
Service snafus and uneven performance from the kitchen were the usual complaints, so even though I was dying of curiosity about the outfit that had replaced one of Baltimore's favorite bistros, I waited for the kinks to sort themselves out.
One night in March, though, a friend was coming from D.C. for dinner, and Fed Hill was a logical meeting place. A week later, Señor M's cousin wanted to get together, and he and his fiancée live in Fed Hill. If Vespa had still existed, it would've been the no-brainer choice for either evening. Ergo, it was time to try Juniors.
There's no getting around comparisons to the restaurant's predecessor: same location, same mission (wine bar), similar food (roughly Cal-Ital), even the same chef (Juniors' current chef, Michael Russell, opened Vespa). And at least on first sight, Juniors has a serious advantage over the old venue. Where Vespa was a single, usually crowded (and noisy) little room, Juniors has dramatically opened up the space to include a lounge area fitted with leather sofas and a spacious dining area with an exhibition kitchen and another bar beyond the original space.
The old dining room retains some of Vespa's sleek modern fittings-those stone floors, for example, which would've surely required some massive blasts from a jackhammer to remove-but it's warmed by wine-colored walls and colorful art. The larger, step-up dining room is even warmer, with red-brick flooring and honey-hued wood tables and booths lining the walls. The transformation translates to a less intense, more relaxed, and definitely less noisy space.
With the addition of all those tables, you can actually drop in at Juniors, something you would've been crazy to try at Vespa. Indeed, although the place was packed on both nights I visited, we were seated immediately, the second time without reservations.
And the menu? Juniors bills its food as "wine country cuisine," which allows Russell to roam beyond Vespa's straight-ahead Italian offerings. True, there are several designer pizzas on the menu, as well as house-made lobster ravioli and a dish of penne with meat sauce, but there's also a Kobe burger, an appetizer of spring rolls stuffed with five-spice chicken, and plenty of New American comfort food like a grilled rib eye with green peppercorn demi-glace.
Still, though, over two visits, we found ourselves happiest with the Mediterranean-inflected items. That first night, my friend Meg merrily munched on fried olives and caperberries as she waited for me to find a parking spot on those impossible Federal Hill streets. The crispy snacks were a superbly addictive combination of crunch and brine, and I promptly finished them off, stopping only to dip them in an excellent accompanying cayenne rémoulade.
I was equally happy with my entrée of roasted Cornish hen, half a bird beautifully cooked and napped with a richly sweet reduction of port wine and grapes. With its sides of soft polenta and wilted greens, it was a perfect rendition of rustic Italian comfort food. Meanwhile, Meg was picking at her grilled salmon, which had been cooked to a dry and relatively tasteless fare-thee-well.
She contented herself with the snappy, fresh green beans and, later, an exemplary if tiny cup of chocolate crème brûlée. She's a mere slip of a girl, but she loves her chocolate.
I came away that first night feeling that Juniors had much potential but that the complaints I'd heard were fairly justified. The food was uneven, and although I like the compactness and the economy of the wine list (numerous bottles between $20 and $40), I'm not sure about dubbing any place with fewer than 20 wines by the glass a wine bar. For genuine oenophiles, that's bound to be a setup for disappointment.
But somehow those concerns got wiped away by the second visit-M, his cousin and fiancée in tow. A vibrantly lush roasted tomato soup of the day drew raves from all of us, its sweet fragrance sparking our appetites for more. A roasted olive dressing elevated my salad of soft bibb lettuce and feta to exceptional heights.
The special that evening was mackerel, a fish notorious for being, uh, fishy, and one I routinely request be excluded from my sushi plate in Japanese restaurants. Although I warned her against it, intrepid Monica ordered said fish. It was a revelation-clean, pure, and snowy white, its firm but mild flesh complemented beautifully by a slightly spicy puttanesca sauce. M's falling-off-the-bone pork shank was another success, earthy and porky, and sided with a marvelous mashed sweet potato and carrot mash.
His cousin always orders his tuna too well done, but this time, it was perfect, and it sat on a bed of diced winter root vegetables that gave this standard an interesting fillip of flavor. A miss of the evening was the calamari meatballs that topped my dish of papardelle. I couldn't resist-what would a calamari meatball taste like? Well, it tasted kind of like rubber, and it looked, oddly enough, like a regular meatball, prompting me to wonder how you render calamari brown. Let's call it an interesting but failed experiment.
And add the peanut butter and jelly cheesecake as another failure; I'll stick with PB&J on Wonder bread, thanks.
But these glitches, we all agreed, were negligible. Service that night was efficient, polite, and sweet. The food, by and large, was truly enjoyable. The surrounds struck the right balance between comfortable and special. But Señor M noted something perhaps far more important. "Look at these prices-they're so reasonable!"
He was right; the most expensive item on the menu, the rib eye, is $22. In the economic storms of our times, Juniors-glitches and all-makes for a pretty fine port in the storm.