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Restaurant review: Vino comes first at Pure Wine Cafe

Visually sleek and modern, Pure Wine Cafe looks as if it belongs on Charles Street in Mount Vernon, serving young and trendy Baltimoreans, instead of being nestled along Main Street in Ellicott City.

This local hot spot, which serves upscale Mediterranean dishes, draws a nice mixture of clientele, from aging former hippies to well-dressed professionals, all enjoying Pure Wine's oenological offerings.

Space is at a premium. While patrons at the bar sit comfortably, dining in the middle area can be challenging because the high-top tables measure about the size of a large dinner plate. When covered with glasses and plates, there isn't much room left. Noise can also be a factor at Pure Wine. When the cafe is crowded, the collective noise, which bounces off the high ceilings and brick walls, could be a hindrance or a bacchanalian vibe, depending on your point of view.

Living up to its name, the cafe offers a varied selection of wines. Not to worry, ordering from the wine list is a cinch: Categories such as "crisp", "refreshing" and "rich" are used for the whites and "soft", "balanced" and "assertive" are used for the reds. The knowledgeable servers can lend a hand if you still have questions. If you're feeling adventurous and would like to sample a new wine without committing to a full glass, some of the pours come in a 2.5-ounce tester size.

My companion and I chose wines from the "refreshing" list, hoping that what we picked would go well with whatever we later decided to eat. Luckily, we chose wisely. The Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/ Viognier blend and the Domaine Goisot Aligote Bourgogne both tiptoed the line between light and heavy, making them a sound selection to pair with most items on young executive chef Kevin Brother's new spring menu.

Pure Wine presents its dishes tapas style, so multiple small plates of food can be shared and paired with the wines you choose. The restaurant's pacing, however, can cause problems. Within 10 minutes of ordering the food, all of the plates were crowding our table. While this may seem like quick service, it's nearly impossible to eat everything at once, which means some dishes can get cold. The two accommodating servers worked in tandem to wait on the packed cafe while navigating the tight spaces.

Items such as the Truffle Fries ($6) suffered from the rushed service. Earthy and creamy, they tasted great, but were soggy and limp — difficult to dip into the accompanying Truffled Black Pepper Aioli. The Medley of Exotic Mushrooms ($9), served with cheese crostini, slightly missed the mark. A few more minutes of cooking would have made the dish sing, but rushed execution hurt the final product. By themselves, the mushrooms were flavorful, but they were overpowered by the crostini. If the mushrooms had been just a little crispier, they would have had the meatiness to stand up to the herbed cheese.

One dish, the Slow Roasted Pork Belly ($16), was doomed from the start. Topped with a salad of cucumber spears and bland fennel, the pork belly had no hint of the citrus marinade the menu advertised. When the dish cooled, the fat congealed — further diminishing the dish.

The Duo of Catalan Meatball Sliders, on the other hand, couldn't have been better. A crisp roll cradled a juicy wagyu beef meatball topped with fontina cheese, smoked paprika and roasted red peppers. It was delicious, flawlessly cooked and would easily pair with a white or red wine.

When we went, the new spring menu had not carried over into the dessert list, which was bogged down with a couple of heavy offerings such as French toast bread pudding. This warranted the choice of the Charcuterie and Cheese plate (five items for $15) for dessert. Mahon, machego, and French chevre shared space on the serving board with applewood duck breast and sopressata. Cheese and cured meats are a great way to end a dinner — and always pair well with wine — and here was no exception.

While many wine bars pair wine with food, Pure Wine takes the opposite approach: Wine comes first. And while the cafe's food isn't as well-rounded as its wine list, it's certainly a good option for a couple on a date or an adventurous group wanting to try new wines.

- Have you been to Pure Wine Cafe in Ellicott City? Write your own review.

Pure Wine Cafe

Where: 8210 Main St., Ellicott City

Contact: 410-480-5037, purewinecafe.com

Open: 4 p.m.-12 a.m. Tuesdays-Thursday; 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Sundays

Credit Cards: All major

Plates: $4-$16

Food: ✭ ✭ 1/2

Service: ✭ ✭ 1/2

Atmosphere: ✭ ✭ ✭

[Outstanding: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ; Good: ✭ ✭ ✭ ; Fair or uneven:✭ ✭ ; Poor: ✭ ]

 

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