This is the Seared rare Amberjack with soybean puree, freeze… (Barbara Haddock, Baltimore…)
I think of my relationship with The Wine Market as a great soap-opera romance. The audience wants us to be together, yet something always conspires to keep us apart. And this last time, we came so close.
I interviewed Jason Lear for an article a few months ago about seasonally minded chefs. I liked his attitude and the way he described his team's menu planning. Lear encourages creativity among his crew, who are keenly aware of seasonal and local dining, Lear said, but not obsessed by it. So zucchini, say, will show up on the menu only if someone is inspired by it and not because it's suddenly plentiful. In Lear's kitchen, a good idea is a good idea, and the process leading up to a menu change is challenging, competitive and exciting.
Enough of this enthusiasm comes through on the plate to make me want to work through my resistance to the space and its staff. The Wine Market is running a "$33 for 3 Courses" special Tuesdays through Thursdays, and this turns out to be a great introduction to the kitchen's style and its current featured items.
I appreciated that the four appetizers, four entrees and three desserts on this special menu appeared to be replicas of items from the main menu. It definitely made ordering easy. Four of us ordered a three-course dinner each and effectively covered the entire featured menu. Ordering from the three-course menu also entitles diners to order a flight of three recommended wines for $3 each, one glass per course.
There were standouts along the way, and I'd attribute the few missteps more to production than conception. I went bonkers for a glamorously produced appetizer of sea scallops and cauliflower puree, accented with shaved white chocolate, almonds, and curry oil — a symphony in white. If it sounds like it's trying too hard, it didn't come across that way. It was bowl-licking good.
In another impressively considered creation, Lear forms sweet-and-sour-style duck confit into a sturdy cylinder and surrounds it with pistachios, poached apricots and duck cracklings. Sweet-and-sour sounds like trouble, I know, but this was subtly done, lovely.
A very good and fresh-tasting chilled sweet-corn soup gets better with a drizzle of smoked olive oil and a topping of crisped fresh herbs. Only by comparison is the fourth appetizer, cornmeal-crusted fried oysters with bacon beurre blanc, a tiny bit uninspiring, better than serviceable but short of dazzling.
The entrees continued to involve us. We loved the sides and dressings the kitchen devised for its entrees, and it was a treat to see a fully plated dish. A pan-seared sirloin gets square chunks of Yukon gold potato confit, crisp snow peas, mouth-watering cipollini onions and a tomato-laced Bearnaise sauce. For the roasted boneless half-chicken, there are roasted turnips, a plucky herb salad with smoked buttermilk ranch dressing and sugar snap peas. The grouper likewise gets romanced with a fine romesco broth, pearl couscous, almond oil and tender purple pieces of calamari.
The letdown came with the foundation material — chicken that had too many dry moments, when there should be none; a less-than-gorgeous steak that was outshone by its sides; and grouper whose native flavor only intermittently came through. This all detracted less than you'd think, though, because the dishes were otherwise so winning, creatively considered and thoughtfully constructed. A fourth entree, a bowl of miso-spiked ahi tuna, vegetables and seaweed over fried soba noodles, is a smart summer meal.
The star of the dessert course was a flourless chocolate fudge cake dusted with milk-chocolate powder and served with praline mousse and homemade mint ice cream. The portion size was perfect — just big enough to satisfy. Passion-fruit sorbet was pretty and very refreshing. A trio of orange-peel beignets with cardamom, sugar and pistachio was just a tiny bit confusing. Even with the menu for consultation, it was hard to make sense out of it.
So then, after all that good eating, why aren't The Wine Market and I in love? I think we're just not made for each other.
I still find the main dining room, a clean and white, model-pretty, industrial rehab, to be cold, anonymous and ultimately enervating. (I am tempted by a side room that looks more cheerful and especially by the patio, which was off-limits during my recent visit.)
The service at our table, from several staff members, was seldom better than perfunctory, marked by moments of indifference and flashes of officiousness. It could be that ordering the way we did — a sweeping request for the special menu — came across as peremptory, confusing or maybe even cheap.
But it's not so much any of that as the absence of joy in The Wine Market's cafeteria-like setting that continues to douse our flame.
The Wine Market
Where: 921 E. Fort Ave.
Hours: Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner Monday-Saturday and brunch on Sunday
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; Poor: ✭]