A year and a chef change later, Inner Harbor East restaurant and wine bar remains one of Baltimore’s best
Published: November 2, 2011
It’s been just over a year since I reviewed Vino Rosina, Jim Lancaster’s glittering wine bar and restaurant in the Bagby Building and recipient of City Paper’s “Best New Restaurant” and "Best Wine Bar" in 2010’s Best of Baltimore issue. Normally, I don’t have the opportunity to return to a restaurant so soon (at least in my official capacity). But after Jesse Sandlin, former Top Chef contestant and original architect of Vino Rosina’s menu, left the restaurant’s kitchen in January 2011, questions lingered: Would Vino Rosina continue to turn out sophisticated yet comfortable food? Would the restaurant still be one of Baltimore’s cosmopolitan bright spots?
I’m happy to report the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. What beguiled me about Vino Rosina in previous visits—the spot-on service; the deep, thoughtful wine list; the inventive menu—has remained. So does the feeling of being tucked away in some private urban space, stylish but never snobby. At Vino Rosina’s bar, young men in suits, their ties loosened like silk lanyards around their necks, sip Natty Boh out of cans. Back behind the beaded curtain, the dining room, larded with wine racks and exposed brick, still finds glossy couples on dates, larger multigenerational parties, and perhaps a few tourists, judging from their casual dress and tennis shoes. All are treated with courtesy by a server who never shows a grain of impatience, even though he seems to be taking care of the entire dining room. “If I’m working, I want to be busy,” he tells our table.
That this hospitality persists is a credit to employees and management alike. But the food credit belongs to Sajin Renae. Renae was a sous chef under Sandlin and one could say she learned well, but that, perhaps, would undercut her own prodigious talents.
Her menu retains the same basic premise of small plates and larger (but certainly not large) entrées, though their classification is a more straightforward categorization of hot, cold, land, sea, and garden. The 16-legged burger is still there too, as is the use of alternative meats, like the delightful, silky rabbit confit that smothers a buttermilk waffle in the rabbit and waffles ($14) (would it be greedy to want a slightly larger waffle?) and a fillet of Gunpowder bison ($18), which retains juicy tenderness from its sous vide preparation, despite the innate leanness of the meat. Granted, the meat isn’t very pretty, lacking the browned exterior it would receive from grilling or pan searing, but the combination of beef and caramelized cauliflower cut with the bitterness of wilted Swiss chard makes for a solid plate.
Other entrées reflected a dose of mom’s kitchen, though I don’t remember mom making satiny gnocchi to accompany chicken and dumplings ($14). Properly titled “Chicken Lil’s dumplins” on the menu, we overheard our server telling a late-arriving table that the dish had sold out. No wonder. The boneless chicken breast, often so dull, seems right in place floating among the gnocchi, barely braised spinach, and meaty mushrooms bound with pan gravy, heavy on drippings and light on thickener. It’s mild, silky, and lovely, if a bit salty. The aromatic spices coating a petit pork tenderloin ($12) served with applesauce and carrots take it, too, beyond a simple Sunday dinner.
Perhaps the best dish of the evening, however, is from the “hot,” small-plate portion of the menu. Grilled polenta ($10) is no stranger to Baltimore restaurants, but Renae’s version puts others to shame. Here, the creamiest of polentas is slathered with thickly sliced forest mushrooms and a grating of nutty Piave vecchio cheese and crowned with a gently oozing poached egg. The whole is rich and delicate, imbued with an earthiness the combination of cheese and mushrooms provides. It is an outstanding dish.
Our table also had strong praise for a cast-iron skillet of 183 Brussels sprouts ($6), smoky from bacon, sour from a balsamic vinaigrette, and melded together under a web of melted cheddar.
A large chalkboard in the dining room reminds you throughout dinner of the cocktails (e.g., a pear-cardamom martini) and house-made ice cream flavors you could be ordering (bacon maple, caramel apple, cayenne chocolate). If you have room, give in to the crème fraîche ice cream, all mild tanginess; the vanilla clove is interesting too—almost dry in flavor and not too sweet ($6 for a trio; $2.50 for a single scoop). The pumpkin whoopee [pie] ($6.50) is also an appropriate autumn treat, particularly for the salty caramel drizzle that swirls over the plate.
There is little about Vino Rosina that doesn’t feel well thought-out, from the clean lines of the glassware and the clever, three-scoop plate for the trio of ice creams to the still-lovely wine list with apt descriptors and a plethora of strong international choices. And not enough can be said about a server who is professional without being cold, helpful without being pushy, and generous without being ingratiating. All this plus Sajin Renae’s food make me want to return again. You should too.
Vino Rosina is open for lunch Monday-Friday and dinner Monday-Saturday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac