Out of Rehab
Baltimore Gets Yet Another Fix for its Addiction to Soulless Retrofitted-Warehouse Cafés
The Wine Market, a combination wine store/café, recently opened on the western border of Locust Point in a complex of freshly renovated buildings now known as the Foundry on Fort. It consists of an orderly wine store up front and a big rectangular café/wine bar in back. It’s a model restoration of high ceilings, exposed brick and ductwork, stained cement floors, and paint-spattered pillars—only the latest industrial building in town to be resuscitated by (who else?) Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse Inc. It’s a lovely dining space, and it got on my nerves. It looks like a museum café in Brussels, say, or Minneapolis. All of this tasteful, creative reuse is starting to look alike to me, and I found myself wishing they’d put in drop ceilings, fake wood paneling, and shag carpeting.
The Wine Market feels disconnected from Locust Point, and even from Baltimore. If I drugged you and dragged you there, I’d defy you to tell me, upon your waking, what city, or even what country, you were in. Is this the moment when the city starts to feel less like home?
At least the New American food served here is good, only a little tentative, as though the chef, Jeff Heineman, was holding a few tricks up his sleeve. Or maybe he isn’t. The café’s Web site describes his approach as “unpretentious and well anchored in traditional French techniques.” When we visited, the menu was accessible, whimsical (e.g., citrus- and vodka-smoked salmon with ice-box crackers), and, compared with other places of similar scope and ambition we’ve visited lately, not too expensive.
As it turned out, simple, unpretentious arrangements came off best. An appetizer of cornmeal-fried oysters with bacon beurre blanc ($8) pleased everyone by retaining the bivalves’ texture and sea-flavor through gentle coating and frying. With another starter, some take-notice horseradish-orange marmalade, spread on rye croutons, stole the thunder from the top-billed duck pastrami and fennel-onion confit ($7). We gobbled up a plateful of shrimp dumplings with sweet jalapeño dipping sauce ($7) without pausing too much to consider their taste (that’s the trouble with dumplings). A three-cheese plate ($7), however, failed to bring into harmony the discordant notes of butter-fatty St. Andre, spiky Maytag blue, and sharp Vermont cheddar.
The very best thing we tried, and something worth going back for, was the grilled flatiron steak with horseradish mashed potatoes, wilted spinach, and Roquefort sauce ($20). This still-popular, well-marbled, and tender cut of beef held its own against the powerful and sharp flavors of the spinach and cheese. If anything showed off this kitchen’s “unpretentious but traditional” cuisine, it was this.
Two other entrées impressed as well, but we thought they got too busy for their own good: an adroitly pan-seared pork loin ($18) was well served by black-eyed peas and a roasted root vegetable confit, but dolloping in baba ghanouj was going too far. It was likewise hard to hold your palate’s place in a dish that offered up sautéed monkfish medallions with jasmine rice and a mixture of mushrooms and edamame in a saffron-citrus cream sauce ($16). The only entrée that really disappointed us was a pasta dish that tossed too much pappardelle (thick flat ribbons) with too little swiss chard, portobello mushrooms, and shaved Asiago ($13).
The staff here could benefit from some more intensive training—we met with a few gaffes. And there’s an odd reticence about wine. The menu makes no suggestions for pairings, and we neither met nor saw any staff member who appeared to be serving as the Wine Market’s sommelier.
The Wine Market struck us as a destination for entertaining out-of-towners (especially future in-laws) or for casual business dinners. Whether it can possibly become part of the neighborhood’s fabric, or the city’s tapestry, is anybody’s guess. But the good food will come to taste much better here if it does.