Locust Point hits the hip zone

The Wine Market, in chic setting, offers small, laudable menu

Sunday Gourmet

October 10, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

You heard it here first. On the theory that one is an anomaly and three are a trend, the opening of the Wine Market makes Locust Point Baltimore's newest hot spot for hip dining. (The other two are Soigne, an Asian fusion restaurant, and Pazza Luna, a sort of retro Italian.)

Move over, Canton.

The Wine Market is the most surprising of the three because you go in thinking you've wandered into a liquor store. Keep walking, and you'll find yourself in the wine bar and cafe in back. The space, in the Foundry building on East Fort Avenue, has plenty of contemporary urban style - the factory chic look of exposed pipes, exposed brick, bare floors, a concrete bar and old columns. The blond wood furniture, tables covered in white linen and sparkling wine glasses at each place soften the room.

It's stylish, it's now, and when the Wine Market cafe gets as crowded as it deserves to be, it's going to be almost unbearably noisy. I like restaurant spaces a little more conducive to conversation, especially when wine is involved, and a little cozier, especially when the weather turns colder. But I'm probably in the minority.

When I first heard about the Wine Market, which opened about six weeks ago, I assumed it would serve wine-bar food. By that I mean cheese plates and tapas and the like. But one of the owners and the chef is Jeff Heineman. Heineman is also an owner of the Grapeseed American Bistro in Bethesda, which has gotten strong reviews and the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for two years running.

His menu for the Wine Market is short but sweet. The food is contemporary American with European, Middle Eastern and Asian accents. Tender sweet oysters dipped in cornmeal and fried to a crisp gold are about as true-blue American as the menu gets, and they come with a very French beurre blanc.

Heineman's food is arranged engagingly on triangular and square white plates like paints on a canvas. A frivolous edifice of crunchy wonton triangles and smoked trout may be too pretty to eat, with its confetti of tomato and avocado and golden pearls of caviar; but once you take a fork to it, your scruples will dissolve.

There are small, pleasant surprises, such as little squares of raw tuna, seared at the edges, paired with a fig and olive tapenade, and there are large ones, such as the fried shrimp in an edamame crust. The latter sounds iffy, but the reality was a crisp, flavorful crust and fork-tender shrimp. The shrimp lay on a bed of sticky rice and spicy black beans with a haystack of slender haricots verts and carrot strips on top.

The line between starters and main courses is blurred. Best example: A tender braised beef short rib in a dark, wine-rich cabernet sauce, which sat jauntily inside a ring of cloud-like mashed potatoes. It's billed as an appetizer, but about all you'll want to follow it with is a salad. On the other hand, the fine ground lamb patty on soft, fresh pita with a cooling yogurt sauce was a little less than a main course. (One of the few missteps was the fries that came with the lamb, too spicy for us to eat.)

Braised monkfish, a special that night, was lovingly bathed in a suave citrus sauce sparked with saffron and decorated with edamame, thin threads of fried onion, and jasmine rice.

The cooler weather was given a regional nod with a second special, juicy slices of pork loin, black-eyed peas, and a mix of carrots, butternut squash and rutabagas. Baba ganoush, the Mediterranean eggplant dish, added unexpected dash.

Desserts are equally impressive. There is the obligatory creme brulee, of course, but instead of a caramelized sugar crust, thin, crackly golden sheets of the stuff are stuck into the custard to create a tall food version. Chocolate intensity is a bit too intense for my taste, but it's prettily decorated with whipped cream and squiggles of sauces. If you crave chocolate, I hope the moist, nut-studded chocolate bread pudding is available, with its delicate scoop of mocha ice cream from Moxley's.

There is nothing much not to like here, except that the bread is served in such thin slices you can't sink your teeth into it.

Service is very good, and our waiter knew his wines so he could advise us knowledgeably about what went with what.

The list of wines by the glass is extensive, and you can get them in 3- or 6-ounce pours. Even better, bottles are available at retail plus a modest corkage fee, instead of the usual 100 percent markup.

The Wine Market

Food: *** 1/2

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

The Wine Market

Where: 921 E. Fort Ave., Locust Point

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$8; Entrees: $13-$20

Call: 410-244-6166@SUBHED

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