Vin in Towson worth the wait

Restaurant Review


I have one thing to say to the various people who made Vin happen: What took you so long?

I'm not talking about construction. I'm talking about the fact that Towson has desperately needed a restaurant that isn't a chain, doesn't serve crab dip or sushi and has some pizazz. Now there is one.

In fact, Vin has a lot of pizazz in a techno-hip, sometimes-I'm-too-whimsical-but-I'm-likable-anyway sort of way. Once you get ensconced in your lipstick-red booth in front of the long, zebra-patterned bar, watching flowers slowly unfolding on all the TV sets over the bar (instead of ESPN), and the trippy music is throbbing in the background, and you're sipping your very expensive merlot by the glass -- well, you'll see what I mean.

The name (pronounced "vine") suggests wine is important here, and it is. There's an international list of 60 bottles, with more than 50 available by the glass, ranging in price from $6.50 to $25. (Those are the by-the-glass prices. The bottles are priced from $19 for an Oxford Landing shiraz to $349 for Chateau Margaux.) The menu offerings seem positively skimpy in comparison.

Still, there's something for everyone on the menu, from pizza -- OK, "wood stone oven flatbreads" -- to lobster thermidor. Some of the offerings, like the grilled calamari, will remind you of Kali's Court, where chef / owner Christopher Paternotte worked before this. One of the best of these is the bronzini, roasted whole and then deboned, but served with the head. The flaky white fish is firm and moist, and it needs nothing more than its sauce of good olive oil, lemon and a few capers to be just about perfect.

The fine gazpacho could have been served colder, but the addition of lump crabmeat at its center made it a sort of Maryland crab soup par excellence.

Simple is best here, with one exception. The house gnocchi with summer tomatoes didn't have enough tomatoes or fresh herbs so the dish essentially struck one note -- a potato dumpling sort of note.

This may not seem like the right time of year to have braised short ribs on the menu, but then you haven't tasted Paternotte's short ribs, which are wonderfully tender but don't dissolve into mush in their full-bodied Guinness sauce. Miniature root vegetables keep the dish from seeming heavier than it is.

On the other end of the spectrum are dishes that are too clever for their own good, like the lobster corn dog served with spicy mustard. (If God had meant lobster to be ground up, it wouldn't taste so fine whole.) Luckily there are very few of those.

A special of scallops, fat, firm and tasting deliciously of the sea, was bedded down on a purple potato puree that had the runny texture of a sauce. The color did nothing for the dish, and the suave yellow saffron sauce made the potatoes seem redundant. But the saffron sauce and the scallops were everything they should have been.

Cantaloupe was shaved rather than sliced for no apparent reason other than looks. It meant there was less textural contrast with the serrano ham (as opposed to the usual juicy sweet pieces of melon with salty dry slivers of ham).

On the other hand, fried oysters encrusted with graham cracker crumbs -- definitely an ugh factor there -- defied all my expectations and were great. Their creamy, spicy remoulade was a perfect partner.

Where Vin's whimsy works best is with its World's Tiniest Dessert Menu. Each is $2, and the offerings come in dishes that were meant for a doll's dinner: tiny bowls of rich creme brulee, a miniature chocolate ganache cake, a cute little tempura banana split with chocolate ice cream and sugared walnuts, apple crisp with cardamom ice cream.

Those of us who ordered coffee ended up with hot, freshly brewed cups -- those who ordered tea, with cups of hot water and an Earl Grey or lemon teabag on the side. This was the only time Vin wasn't on top of the current trends. Tea is hot, guys. (The water should be, too.)

Vin isn't for everyone, particularly if you aren't interested in The Scene. There are quieter choices in Towson with good food. But with its hip vibes, entertaining food, great outdoor seating area right across the street and free parking in back, Vin is already a smash success. Make sure you have a reservation.



FOOD *** (3 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars) Address: 1 E. Joppa Road, Suite 155, Towson

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$11; main courses, $15-$26

Call: 410-337-0797

RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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