The Wine Kitchen pours on the details
Concise offerings, exuberant tasting notes
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012
If they introduced it to diners at all, most restaurants would probably limit their praise for the 2009 Benovia pinot noir to a few words about its bright fruit aromas and centered acidity.
Not the Wine Kitchen in Frederick. "If this wine were a car, it would be a cherry red Corvette," raves the new American bistro, which counts an older sibling with the same name in Leesburg. There are "long lines of lush cherry and red raspberry on the outside," the Wine Kitchen gushes. "But the real magic is under the hood; with the full throttle of spiced plum jam, nutmeg and vanilla providing the power. The precision tuned finish is soft and juicy."
Vroom! Vroom! My taste buds are primed to roll with the Sonoma Coast sipper, which lives up to the hype. Regardless of what wine you order, or how - by the taste, the glass or the bottle - the choice is accompanied by a little card describing the wine in a lively manner that lets you know you're not reading Robert Parker's tasting notes.
"The whole goal is to give the customer a mental picture of what something tastes like," says Jason Miller, who co-owns both restaurants with Michael Mercer. The business partners want the process of ordering grape juice to be "fun and engaging," he says, a vehicle for conversation among table mates.
The menu, created by Adam Harvey, 27, an alumnus of the upscale Volt nearby, is a single sheet with fewer than 20 dishes, but the chef changes the list often enough to keep regulars interested.
Harvey's green salad has more heft than most. A riff on the classic Waldorf brings a pretty stack of ruffled bibb lettuce, lightly dressed with champagne vinaigrette. At the tip of the hillock are halved red grapes, chopped hazelnuts and green apple that has been julienned and lightly pickled in rice wine vinegar. The kitchen's daily soup special also shows extra attention. One especially cold night, I am warmed by a bowl of creamy butternut squash puree painted with concentriccircles of chili oil - a duet of heat and sweet - and floating a few nubby goat cheese fritters. I am glad to have a small skillet of pull-apart rolls nearby to mop up the remains. The bread, $5and worth the splurge, is served hot, brushed with butter and flecked with sea salt.
Tuna tartare again? Taking one for the team, I order the appetizer for what must be the 10,255th time and fall in like with diced yellowfin tuna hiding pistachios and yogurt in its sparkling folds. Dressing the surface are tiny potato chips, mini-scoops, that resemble flower petals.
When I ask how the entree of pork belly is prepared, my minder asks me if I've had it before. Seems some diners are taken aback by the sight of crisp skin on a block of fatty flesh. What shows up is just that, dressed for the season with sauteed pear on top and a rich swipe of squash puree. Reassurance in winter. Another score among the main courses is fried "biscuit" chicken, named for the coating applied to the brined bird: dehydrated biscuit crumbs, shares the chef, who rounds out the centerpiece with sauteed kale. Branzino with a hash of root vegetables, on the other hand, tasted like a retread.
Like a lot of restaurants, this one functions best at full tilt. The staff has less time to hover, and the cooks retain better focus. I couldn't help but think that the undercooked white beans with my otherwise-satisfying barbecued quail were the result of too few patrons one midweek night.
The setting, peering over Carroll Creek, combines old barn wood, a pressed-tin ceiling, a semi-open kitchen and a lounge area warmed by a fire. The only off-note is a temperature-controlled private dining room, visible through its glass walls, which doubles as a wine cellar but has all the charm of an operating theater.
Miller and Mercer arrange their inventory in flights of three wines in 10 clever categories, including Whites of Fancy, Pinot Evil and Italian Renaissance. That last collection is a particular draw: Three fine-lipped glasses march you through Italy with two-ounce splashes of verdicchio from Le Marche, barbera from Piemonte ("the Dizzy Gillespie of red wine," trumpets the profile, "with big puffy cheeks of red cherry fruit") and nero d'avola from Sicily.
Cocktails recently made their debut here. They include My Italian-American Friend - a riff on a Manhattan made elegant with amaro, theItalian herbal liqueur - and the tequila-based Vida Loca, completed with lime juice, Cointreau and a dusting of espelette chili powder. For munching, the menu opens with marinated olives with orange peel, warm curry-spiced cashews and poutine, the Canadian gorge of fries, gravy and cheese, given a Maryland spin with Old Bay seasoning in the gravy and lump crab in the mix.
Desserts are more elaborate than you expect of such a small kitchen. The best is coconut panna cotta served with cilantro-spiked lime sorbet. (Avoid the dense and doughy pear clafloutis.) The cheese plate is generous but inelegant, as if a ravenous teenager threw together the hunks of blue, brie and goat during a refrigerator raid.
The Wine Kitchen makes drinking fun. Eating, too. The owners say their business plan includes a third restaurant. This diner votes for the District.