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Free Range

Top Quality

Vino Rosina's delicious, charming parts make for a satisfying whole

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

More info on Vino Rosina in our restaurant guide

Vino Rosina’s (507 S. Exeter St., [410] 528-8600, menu isn’t large. The dining room feels a shade wider than the average rowhouse. Its tables number only a dozen or so. And yet, as sometimes happens, this small restaurant makes a big impact.

Harbor East’s newest fine-dining spot comes via Jim Lancaster, whose Rosina Gourmet has been quietly turning out quality lunches for years (I’ve yet to tire of the pesto chicken salad). In Vino Rosina, Lancaster proves he has a handle on the dinner/bar scene as well, though much of this credit should be shared with sommelier Olivia Boru, whose intelligently eclectic wine list culls from all corners of the globe, and chef Jesse Sandlin, whose equally eclectic menu changes regularly, making the most of the season’s bounty and her own well-honed instincts.

Clad in chef’s jacket, jeans, and clogs and plugged into her laptop at the counter of the restaurant’s exposed kitchen during dinner service, Sandlin looks smaller and calmer than she did as a Top Chef contestant, where her exuberant tattoos and piercings elicited more controversy than her kitchen skills. She surveys the dining room thoughtfully as she taps the keyboard, graciously chatting to star-struck guests who approach her babbling praise. It is not undeserved.

Rather than creating a menu designed to shock, Sandlin concentrates on using high-quality ingredients to their best advantage. Local lettuces show up in a Caesar salad, and Benton’s smoky Tennessee country ham is draped over local peaches ($6), a domestic pairing which appeals as much as the traditional Tuscan prosciutto and melon. Equally winning is tangy, salty sheep’s milk cheese whipped into a pillowy mousse to accompany a crusty Stone Mill Bakery loaf ($9). It’s a delightful, if pricey, way to begin a meal.

Both the bread and the peaches and ham make up the handful of starters, including mixed olives, a goat’s cheese tart, and crab dipparoo (“You can just say ‘crab dip.’ You don’t have to say ‘dipparoo’,” counseled our charming server), that fall under the “sample and share” heading of the menu. Salads get their own category, as does cheese. The rest of the menu’s entries are either “raw” or “oven roasted,” which translate mainly into more starters, albeit uncooked ones and warm entrées, respectively. It’s in these last two categories that Sandlin shows her playful side, with a carpaccio of lamb rather than beef or a clever tuna “salad” ($12) that turns the classic on its head by using rosy raw fish barely bound with the lightest of lemon mayonnaise and a sprinkling of capers and “micro celery.”

Menus like this, appealing as they are, are notoriously difficult to navigate in terms of appetite versus amount. If I order something from the “raw” or partake in a “sample and share,” do I necessarily need an “oven roasted”? The answer is, of course, “it depends” (and Vino Rosina’s servers are apt at advising in this matter). The lovely, almost too rich rabbit cannelloni ($16), one plate-sized roll of pasta, rabbit, and shallot confit and goat’s cheese glazed with pan juice, felt perfectly sized, given its nuanced, layered flavors, as did the crispy duck leg ($16), which was perhaps just a shade too crispy. But if you order the 16-legged burger (and someone at your table should) ($14) make sure you leave room. Even cooked through to well done as the restaurant insists, this meaty, sweet blend of ground pork, lamb, bison, and beef is a juicy, messy meal and a half. I can only imagine the appetite needed for the “breakfast for dinner” entrée (blackened ahi tuna, potato pancake, poached egg, and hollandaise) or “The BIG ‘Eye,’” a 32-ounce Roseda Farms ribeye that clocks in at a substantial $65.

But this is not something to spend too much time worrying about. Instead, it’s more fun to guess just how many bottles fill the wall that separates the dining room from the square-shaped bar area, where a sea of dark-suited businessmen are gathered for a political fundraiser, or to speculate on the number of dates the beautifully turned out couple making eyes and trading forks on the opposite side of the exposed-brick dining room have been on. (My guess? One, tops.) Or to wonder if anyone eats in the small lounge area, lit by funky glass bulbs and tucked into a back corner. Or to realize how lucky Vino Rosina was in hiring our server, who whisked away into the cooler a glass of wine ordered and waiting for a late guest; who gave advice and brought several samples to a guest who couldn’t decide on a wine and extra bread when the loaf on our table was somehow reduced to crumbs; who was patient, accommodating, and personable without being personal; and whose name—Bassel—we didn’t learn until he brought the check.

It’s this professionalism and good spirit of place that make up for Vino Rosina’s quirks, like an overreliance on some ingredients (peaches proliferated the night we dined) and some OK, but not spectacular, desserts, including a spicy but achingly sweet rice pudding prepared as crème brulee ($6). (The cheese selection is infinitely more interesting.)

Still, Vino Rosina has so much charm, I found myself repeating over and over “I like this place,” to the amusement of my dining companions. Because more than any restaurant I’ve visited recently, Vino Rosina is truly a balanced sum of all its parts, something that makes that charm unmistakable and even a little hard to define. Every component is good, but together, they create a whole—chic yet comfortable, and pretty damn delicious. Welcome home, chef.

Vino Rosina is open for lunch Monday-Friday and dinner seven days a week.

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