This new restaurant darling in Harbor East has one of the most unusual menus we’ve seen lately. In fact, one diner looked at it online and thought that it wasn’t a complete listing of dishes!
But that’s not the case. The menu is just succinct and nontraditional. And that’s what owner Jim Lancaster—who has run sandwich haven Rosina Gourmet in Canton and downtown Baltimore for more than 10 years—and executive chef Jesse Sandlin (yes, that Jesse from last season’s Top Chef) are striving to do.
Vino’s website says it all: “One sip, one bite . . . it’s love,” meaning grab a glass of wine, a morsel (or three), and be wooed. Or choose one of the larger plates, including a New York strip steak for $65! Well, it is 24 ounces. Other dishes cost much less.
There’s a definite buzz when you stop by the restaurant in the evening. It’s a sleek rehab in the old Bagby Building with polished wood floors, salvaged brick walls, convivial bar area (Fox 45 news anchor Jennifer Gilbert was there with a gal pal when we visited), and a walled wine rack that is a passageway into the dining room. It’s got an edgy New York vibe with bare tables, dark-brown banquettes, mod chairs, and an open kitchen—but with a friendly Baltimore ambiance.
Our black-clad server was efficient and helpful. He even brought us complimentary flutes with a splash of sparkling Shiraz (no, we weren’t busted as reviewers) to accompany one of our appetizers: the Gunpowder Farms bison and eggs with piave vecchio cheese (similar to Parmesan-Reggiano) and shallots. Raw, ground bison may not be for everyone, but we devoured the delicate mound of meat moistened with a poached quail egg and served with thin crostini for scooping.
The goat’s cheese tart is more restrained and delicate. A small disc of puff pastry is dappled with tangy goat cheese and basil and finished with impossibly thin slices of baby squash on a bed of mâche. We also nibbled on hunks of crusty bread with olive hummus—like a chunky, piquant tapenade. A rich olive-oil-and-balsamic blend is served for dipping, too.
Of course, you’re in a wine bar, so you should be able to count on an intriguing wine list—and you can. Sommelier Olivia Boru has come up with a selection of international wines that should appeal to most palates. We were happy with a Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, though the menu offers alternatives, too. Perhaps a French Sancerre instead?
And while there is a focus on an eclectic assortment of wines—available in three- and six-ounce pours as well as bottles—the bar is getting a well-deserved reputation as the place to go for intriguing vodka house infusions like lemon verbena; strawberry, basil, and rhubarb; and lime, cilantro, and agave tequila.
There are no food specials, because the menu changes frequently, often weekly, to reflect the season’s produce, chef Sandlin told us afterward. She goes to farmers’ markets on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, she says, and tweaks the menu to reflect her finds. She does offer to create a chef’s tasting menu for larger groups.
On our visit, we were pleased with the oven-roasted salmon. The center-cut fillet was fork-tender with an appealing seared exterior. The dish was rounded out with halved, ruby-ripe cherry tomatoes and green beans as thin as haricots vert tossed with a pleasant sherry-vinegar aioli and chopped almonds.
We loved the homey roasted half chicken, prepared sous vide. (Isn’t everyone doing this technique nowadays?) The chicken, in two sections (leg and thigh and wing and breast), was fall-off-the bone moist, but its noticeable saltiness may be too overwhelming for some palates. We happened to like it. A bed of crisp, fresh baby spinach balanced the hearty poultry.
More restaurants are making their own ice cream these days, and Vino Rosina didn’t miss the scoop on this trend. It has numerous house-made flavors and doles them out in generous servings. We tried a trio of ice creams, choosing basil, peppermint, and, our favorite, cherry chocolate, a pale-pink mix with big chunks of cherries and chocolate (like Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia).
The blueberry pound-cake Napoleon was like a little burst of summer: a demitasse-sized loaf cake topped with a fluff of sheep’s-milk whipped cream and big, fat, fresh berries.
Our only dessert quibble involved the perplexing s’mores. We couldn’t figure out how to eat the stacked concoction of chocolate sorbet, thick graham crackers, and house-made marshmallow. There was no way to break the crackers into manageable bites with a knife and a fork. If you use your fingers (we tried), you end up with sticky sorbet all over your hands.
We persevered, though, finally digging into the dense, delicious sorbet and light-as-air marshmallow square with a spoon, leaving the tenacious wafers behind.
Lunch at Vino is a quieter affair. The original Rosina built its reputation on producing interesting gourmet sandwiches and we wanted to see if the new place would uphold that reputation. It did.
Our server was less experienced than our evening waiter and didn’t have a grasp of the menu, especially the types of breads. She insisted that the roast beef and tuna burger came on a “regular bun like you get in the store.” But the roast beef was served on marble rye; the tuna on brioche. No biggie. The sandwiches were plump and flavorful.
The thinly sliced beef was layered with red onion, lettuce, and horseradish aioli. The juicy tuna burger worked well with sriracha-soy mayo, pickled ginger, red onion, and fresh spinach. You can choose a side of mesclun—a fresh spring-lettuce mix coated with a light vinaigrette—or a pile of addictive sweet-potato chips.
We’ve heard some criticism about the lack of choices on the dinner menu, but we hope diners will take another look. Good things really do come in small packages.