This is the duck confit small plate at Vino Rosina restaurant. (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Vino Rosina is the latest addition to the Harbor East wining, dining and entertainment scene. Open just about a month now, this smartly renovated industrial spot has a lot going for it, including a perfectly executed bar space up front and plenty of good food to enjoy with a glass of wine, a glass of beer or an infused cocktail.
Vino Rosina is from the people best known for the successful Rosina Gourmet lunch and catering operations in Canton and downtown. The deservedly praised sandwiches that have made Rosina Gourmet so popular are available during lunch at the new location, but at night, the mood and the menu changes, and Vino Rosina morphs into a wine bar with an eclectic menu of small and large plates.
Satisfying daytime needs and desires is one thing, but people want something different at night. Not everyone can pull this kind of move off. (Think of Pat Sajak's late-night show.) So it was a very good sign when Vino Rosina announced that Jesse Sandlin, who did much better work as a real chef at Abercrombie Fine Foods than she did as a player on Bravo's "Top Chef," was on board, and that the Charleston Group's Olivia Buro had been hired as wine director.
You're further encouraged just walking through the door. The front third of Vino Rosina is given over to a perfectly square bar, a rarity in Baltimore. Farther back, separated from the front by floor-to-ceiling wine towers, are the open kitchen and dining rooms, which have a handsome contemporary feel.
Opening-month kinks are evident. The wait staff, which has no single identifiable serving style, is prone to silly gaffes about the menu. Two servers confused sardines with anchovies. The food menu is badly designed, making categories like "raw," "oven-roasted" and "pots & dips" feel chaotic and arbitrary instead of intentional and confident. The wine booklet is worse, so graphically unappealing — like the program for a horse-jumping show, a friend said — that it seriously undermines the efforts that Buro has put into assembling it.
For every slip, however, a quick recovery — a smart wine recommendation from a server, or the alternate option of ravishingly displayed infused cocktails — martinis composed of Prairie Organic Vodka and ingredients such as lemon verbena, strawberry, basil, rhubarb and olive medleys. The beer selection, in bottles and on draft, is impressively managed, too.
When the printed menu does a disservice to a chef's intentions, the kitchen's output can come across as more erratic than it is. Each dish lives or dies on its own. The outstanding work here comes first in the cheese presentation, one of the city's best, and in the "raw" category, a selection of gorgeously considered carpaccio, ceviche and crudo.
For her cheese service, Sandlin has assembled a goat, cow, sheep, and blue from France, Italian, Spain and America. It borders on the gimmicky, but she has clearly been guided by things she is excited about sharing. This makes coming here fun. Their presentation, which includes quince paste and raw honeycomb, easily outperforms the serving of charcuterie, which feels perfunctory by comparison.
The raw dishes are splendid. Don't miss the tartare of bison, flavored with piave vecchio and topped with a quail egg. The lamb carpaccio, seasoned with rosemary salt, is gorgeous. And a scallop crudo and clam ceviche deliver intense, shimmering flavors.
The rest of the work ebbs and flows. Black olive hummus is a fine zesty starter, and a small but arousing serving of boquerones, tiny little fresh anchovies marinated in olive oil, is fine for smushing on good chewy bread. Bread and oil can be ordered separately, but $4 feels excessive; even worse is charging $2 for bread that a waiter offers to bring to supplement another dish's flatbreads.
I liked a creamy chicken liver mousse (from "Pots & Dips"), and I loved a duck confit ("Oven Roasted), done up with pickled strawberries and rhubarb. But its category mate, heads-on prawns flavored with chili flake, lemon and garlic, didn't cohere — the flavors seemed extraneous. Same with a seared scallops dish, served with a sour cherry and peach salsa. The scallops seemed marooned, and it all felt, well, too fruity to be one of only a handful of available main plates. Much, much better was the sous vide leg of lamb, served with a finely chopped ratatouille, a go-to dish.
Dessert is homemade, a tad reliant on crowd favorites like crème brulee and bread pudding. A sharp twist on the strawberry shortcake, ladling sheep's milk cream over blueberries and buttermilk pound cake, redeems the brief selection. Of all things not to like, the homemade ice cream, chalky, not intense enough, left us cold.
The bottom line of our evening at Vino Rosina, which had its share of ups and downs, was that we had a great time. We had spent about 3 1/2 hours at our table, sampling from a menu of small and large plates, and it felt about half as long. That's a sign that things are going smoothly.
Where: 509 S Exeter St
Hours: Open for lunch Monday-Friday and for dinner daily
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]