An Exercise in Utility
A Federal Hill Spot Offers Good Food In a Grown Up Atmosphere
This location is closed
Junior's Wine Bar is an argument for gentrification. Located at the old Vespa address, Junior's is easily eight times larger than its predecessor, with a clubby dine-in bar up front, a quieter dining room and back bar up a few steps, and a semiprivate paneled room on the side. Who wouldn't want to eat dinner here, or live here, with such pretty furnishings and so much gorgeous brick and wood and tile?
You just know what the owners were thinking, that Federal Hill needed more places for adults away from the frat boys, beer blasts, and panhandlers. And it was a good call because, now, if you want a place where four couples can gather around a big round table for a nice, not very expensive dinner before a show at the 8X10, you have it.
Junior's Wine Bar is not really a wine bar, or no more of one than any other handsome midlevel restaurant. There are a few dozen wines by the glass, divided up on the wine list between "old world" and "new world," reds and whites. But the wine list does without the kind of notes that would encourage exploring, and the food menu doesn't suggest or otherwise promote pairings.
Odder still, Junior's is one of the few restaurants to open in recent months not to offer small plates. This feels like a deliberate act, and it comes across as creeping conservatism, as though someone at Junior's equates small plates with trendy nonsense. And that name--Junior's Wine Bar--is truly brilliant, in the manner of the American genius Dolly Parton, concealing sophistication and shrewdness just beneath a hick exterior.
Did I mention what a nice time we had there? Without sarcasm? The "wine country cuisine" menu is straightforward, even simple: Choose a salad or starter, choose an entrée, and get on with dinner, and with life. There are a few in-between choices--flatbread pizzas with a few twists, like cured lemon, corn, and spinach with shrimp and boursin cheese ($12); or braised duck with roasted onions, Stilton, and rosemary balsamic glaze ($12). Everyone but me loved this last one. I think the crust should have been way crispier. Also among the light fare is a grilled Kobe burger ($12). This is the best burger in Baltimore right now, perfect through and through, topped with Asiago and cheddar cheese, its toasted bun spread with a spiky black-pepper aioli.
The only thing at Junior's resembling a nibble are the deep-fried olives with cayenne remoulade ($9), which were not as zestily fun as they should have been. And unlike the rest of the menu, they feel overpriced.
The entrées, priced between $16 for a pasta dish and $22 for a grilled rib eye, considering the ambiance, come across as bargains. They turn out to be decent, generously plated, but ultimately not very compelling. They're conservative. Still, that rib eye is good meat, well prepared, with red-pepper potato mash. Penne with roasted meat sauce ($16) is bracingly simple, absent even a sprig of parsley, which might be authentic, but the dish quickly tires itself out, even with thick hunks of meat.
There's more going on with a Cornish game hen ($19), some pleasant polenta and simple wilted greens, and a dusky port-wine reduction, but even so it's not knockout cuisine, just satisfying. A grilled tuna ($21), accompanied by roasted winter vegetables and spinach spaetzle and drizzled with a lemon-chive aioli, tasted too fishy.
Among the four salads (all $6), the best choice was a simple mix of baby arugula with cucumbers, crisp onions, and roasted tomato-Gorgonzola dressing. The tuna fritters in the niçoise salad are a cute twist, but they're too mushy inside. Junior's version of a Caesar salad needs more bite to the anchovy dressing and better croutons--if they were homemade, they didn't look like it.
So, if the measure of a good restaurant is how useful it is, Junior's gets high marks. It's just not to die for. And over several trips, this thought developed: Is this a friendly neighborhood place? I'm still waiting to feel welcome. H
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday.