When a big-name executive chef leaves a restaurant less than a year after it opened, diners rightly wonder if the shakeup will change the vibe of the new place. After all, Jesse Sandlin brought her cooking verve, colorful tattoos, and Top Chef-status in great style to Vino Rosina in May 2010. All seemed well. But by early 2011, she was gone by "mutual beneficial agreement," according to owner Jim Lancaster.
I don't know the back story, but I have been curious about how the Harbor East restaurant is faring since Sandlin's departure. Lancaster, who also runs sandwich haven Rosina Gourmet in Canton and downtown Baltimore, promised a smooth transition with sous chef Sajin Renae taking over the kitchen reins.
Sajin, who prefers using her first name professionally, told me at the time: "My flair is comfort food, everything that people can relate to."
On recent visits, I could see her imprint on the menu, though Sandlin's burger still remains. Perhaps the biggest change is a more fleshed-out list with definitive categories, including Garden, Land, and Sea. A selection of interesting cheeses is still available.
Our server advised us to order several plates since the portions were only three to four ounces. I didn't weigh the dishes, but they seemed more generous than that. The Fancy Mac is a case in point with its rich melding of macaroni, chunks of sun-dried-tomato chicken sausage, and thyme in a white cheddar and Parmesan sauce, served in a small cast-iron skillet. It's a meal unto itself. On another day, you may find the cheeses or type of sausage in this dish are different, putting a new flavor spin on the pasta.
Nothing has changed in the minimalist dining room with its brick walls, wood floors, and bare tables. A wine-rack wall separates the sleekly designed room with an open kitchen from the square bar in the front, known for its house-infused martinis (like the very grownup cherry vanilla with vodka and rum infused with fruit).
But this is still very much a wine bar with thoughtful offerings from various countries and regions. Wines are available in three- and six-ounce pours as well as full bottles. Whatever size you order, they pair well with the menu's hot and cold snacks.
We nibbled on roasted black and green olives tinged with fennel and orange zest, piled into a tiny pot and served with toast points. Another dish, chicken-liver-pâté, was laid out splendidly on a long wooden board. Two thick, creamy meat slabs were perched on fluffy arugula, ready to be spread on golden slices of toast with enhancements like locally made garlic pickle slices, whole-grain mustard, and a piquant rhubarb marmalade.
The sizable arugula salad with tangy champagne vinaigrette took cues from the garden with peppery greens and cantaloupe cubes and added sturdiness with ham chunks and feta crumbles.
For entree-like fare, we turned to the fish of the day—a crispy rockfish. This white, succulent square of fish was nestled with garden-fresh green beans as thin as haricots verts, summer cherry tomatoes from local The Zahradka Farm, and applewood smoked bacon. The confit rabbit tacos presented a medley of exciting flavors with the soft shreds of meat, a carrot-red-pepper slaw, and shaved radishes stuffed into two corn tortillas.
A dish that especially spoke to Sajin's homey cooking style was the Duroc pork, sliced into several rosy slabs and fanned like an open deck of cards on a smooth five-apple sauce and complemented by brown-sugar, honey-glazed carrots.
Homemade ice creams, sherbets, and sorbets are listed on a big blackboard in the dining room. A trio dessert allows you to choose your own flavors. The chocolate with cayenne ice cream brought the tongue-teasing heat we desired along with a velvety crème-fraîche ice cream and a cool cherry sherbet. The only downside is that the cold confections soften too quickly.
A small round of molten chocolate cake was matched with a scoop of the crème-fraîche ice cream. I wished our server had alerted us, so we could have tried a different kind with our threesome plate. A lemon panna cotta cutely arrived in a glass-lidded jar. It was a refreshing custard, though topped with out-of-season strawberries. The excellent Zeke's French-press coffee soothed any minor ills.
I left sated and confident that Vino Rosina is still the edgy restaurant it was when it opened—and that executive chef Sajin has created her own excitement there.