It seems simple, but stays on your mind
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 10, 2013
was GOOD," a buddy texts me shortly after we went our separate ways one midwinter night. On the surface, the wellspring of his enthusiasm — pizza, pasta, pudding — might not quicken a gastronaut's pulse. But the pie, the noodles and the dessert showed such thought, it was as if we were eating them for the first time.
Our mutual affection for Vin 909 Winecafe was heightened by its locale: Annapolis has abundant charms, but drive-worthy restaurants aren’t high on the list.
Rolled out in 2011, Vin 909 Winecafe is an awkward name for an engaging restaurant in the Eastport section of Maryland’s capital. Set in a pre-1920 Sears, Roebuck house, the wine-themed operation is the effort of two young men, Alex Manfredonia and chef Justin Moore, who met while working at the jazzy Bix in San Francisco and headed east at the encouragement of Manfredonia’s father. If not for the crowds visible through the windows of the snug Vin 909 every night, the tidy establishment could pass for a residence.
There’s little on the menu that you haven’t seen before. But be prepared to be surprised.
Think you know lobster bisque? Think again. Moore shakes you from the same-old with his pale orange puree, which is mostly liquid and so rich with the taste of lobster, you imagine a bushel of shells was devoted to flavoring every bowl. No one-note wonder, the bisque is shot through with serious heat: cayenne and serrano, a server confirms the source of our pleasure-pain.
The mountain of greens on a salad of sliced yellow beets reminds you you’re away from the big city, where portions are more restrained, but check out the dusting of what resembles snow in the dimples of the peak. Finely grated aged goat cheese gives the starter a nice lift. Another visit, cardoons (also known as artichoke thistles), watermelon radishes, chilies and more made for an exciting salad du jour. Crunch, crunch. Smile, smile.
“A lot of restaurants throw pizzas on their menu,” observes Moore, who is also a veteran of the admired Zero Zero pizzeria in San Francisco. “I love to do it right.” The chef’s gas-fired brick oven produces some terrific pies, one of the more unusual being the spinach-dappled Popeye. Its thin crust is dressed with a veneer of cheese, tangy tomato sauce and lashings of orange oil. The last accent is unexpected -- bright and sunny -- punctuation. The chef uses a rolling pin to stretch the dough, which he allows to rest, then massages by hand.
Friends and I catch some of the cooking show through a large kitchen window while we sip wine in a small hall connecting the front of the house to the rear, a covered and heated patio. “My favorite spot,” a hostess says of the bridge between dining spaces.
The restaurant promotes its small main courses -- clams steamed with cider and cream, skirt steak in a skillet, tuna tartare with almonds and blood orange -- as “great to share.” I appreciate the sentiment, but the truth is, some compositions are tough to allocate. Cassoulet is rethought with tender shrimp and slices of country ham collected in a bowl with creamy, thyme-laced white beans that are so luscious I could make a solo feast of them. That sliced steak, cooked to a fine blush, is plenty beefy and made interesting with a sauce that swerves from sweet to sour every bite. Another reason to put Vin 909 on any Annapolis itinerary is a bowl of pesto-veined house-made pasta tossed with gulf shrimp and guanciale (pig’s jowl), its winy, buttery sauce an excuse to dip back into the bread basket. Then there are pork sliders, smoky-sweet pork shoulder packed into a crackling brioche bun with an edible spark plug: pickled cauliflower.
No cocktails? In 2013? Oh, well. The wine list, which boasts of offering “the best wines you’ve never heard of,” gathers most of its nearly 50 choices into three price groups. Six bucks buys you glasses of wines that assure you “value is not a dirty word,” says the restaurant. Eight dollars says, “I got class, I just don’t want to pay for it.” Finally, there are $12 pours that suggest “darn the economy, let’s drink wine.” The wines are also available by the bottle, for $21, $28 and $42, respectively.
Sounds good, but a frequent wine drinker is likely to be familiar with the offerings. Where are the uncommon grapes? The boutique bottles? Vin 909 plays it pretty safe. Solid choices include the blend of grenache blanc and clairette, a white Cotes-du-Rhone from Ferraton ($21), and a malbec-bonarda combination ($48) from Tikal in Argentina.
Poached pears for dessert might sound like an afterthought, but these could be served at any of Washington’s better tables. The plump fruit is winey but not boozy; sweet but not cloying; spicy but not stuck on cinnamon. A dollop of genuine whipped cream is all the dressing the pears need (and receive). While I rarely finish everything on my plate, I broke my own rule after tasting Vin 909’s fluffy, true-tasting butterscotch pudding spooned into a deep bowl. One of the best endings to a meal in months, the well of pleasure gets its lightness from whipped cream folded into the brown sugar, eggs and more than a splash of Scotch.
Vin 909 is staffed with a mostly sunny crew save for its co-owner. “How can I help you?” Manfredonia says tersely to a couple of arrivals at the door. “Dessert?” the straight face asks later in the evening. The first time, I chalked up his brusqueness to a busy night, but every night is a dance marathon in his restaurant, which does not take reservations. Can we see a smile now and then, sir? Some sign you’re in the hospitality trade?
It’s early Saturday night, and at least 20 people are crammed into the entrance near the bar. Despite the nip in the air, others are waiting on the restaurant’s porch. As a companion from the District reluctantly leaves the table to make way for some of Vin 909’s hungry fans, he says, “I wish this were closer.”
With a caveat or two, that makes two of us.