Wine is the focus at Grand Cru, a bar in the charming food market at Belvedere Square.
It's a good spot to sit and learn about new wines — chances are, Grand Cru's knowledgeable staff can help you find a new favorite grape. The selection of small plates, however, needs some of the particulars worked out.
More of an after-work meet up than a first date destination, the setting for this lively bar is a sparse and industrial interior with exposed pipes. The kitchen/prep area is modern and warm, with accents of wood compared to the rest of the cold concrete and aluminum room.
The wall across from the bar is covered with blackboard paint and scribbled with the specials of the day. The rest of the walls are lined with shelves and refrigeration units stocked with wines, beers and liquors. It all makes for a very handsome yet Spartan presentation.
Any beer or wine from the shelves can be had in house for a $5 corkage fee. Ordering by the bottle is great way to drink if you know what you like, or if you're part of larger group. For a party of two, a bottle is a commitment, so we opted to taste a variety of wines off the menu. Grand Cru offers many wines in half- and full-size glasses; the half-glass was a cheap and easy way to try different varietals and blends.
A good way to start is with the 2010 Barrel 27 Grenache/Viognier ($4 per half-glass) blend, which was tart and peppery with citrus notes throughout. It cleansed the palate and got us in the mood for food. Grand Cru's fare is more along the lines of tapas or fancier snacks to go with the wine.
We ordered several small plates, and the first thing to come out was the fresh olive assortment ($5). There were many kinds of olives: green, black, purple, oil cured and brine cured. They were all good, but for the price, left us wanting more. A few additions to the olive mix, such as orange peel or garlic, might have added a different dimension. Little details like this could have made much of the food we had at Grand Cru considerably better.
While the four cheeses of the farmstead cheese plate ($10) were great, they were some of the smallest portions we've ever seen at a restaurant. The Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue, in particular, was mild and deep with a pleasant campfire scent. The cheeses were a delight to eat, but at about half the length of a butter knife blade and only as wide, their size left a bad aftertaste. Larger cuts of only two cheeses would have been a better idea.
Better garnishes could have saved the smoked salmon quartet ($12), hot shrimp ($12) and the roasted mushrooms ($8. The smoked salmon was bright and clean-tasting but was done in by onion chopped too large and watery crème fraiche. The mushrooms were not cooked through, which left them spongy and lukewarm. The shrimp — only three of them — were overpowered by an overly salty prosciutto wrap. And the lemon and sherry advertised to be on the shrimp made no appearance.
Garnishes can make or break simple dishes such as shrimp and mushrooms, and here, there was room for improvement. But all was not lost.
Suggested by our knowledgeable server, the 2010 Wienbach Sylvaner ($5 per half-glass) was a fantastic fall white wine that smacked of green apple and fresh fruit. It cut right through the fattiness of the charcuterie plate ($15). Comprised of hot coppa, mortadella, sopressata, binkerts salame and duck prosciutto, this plate of sliced meats hit the spot. They were all delicious, but the duck prosciutto and Binkert's salame were standouts. The sides of cornichons and tart Dijon mustard were welcome sights.
It took a sip or two to get used to jumping from a bright wine to a half-glass of the 2009 Ken Wright Pinot Noir ($7.50), but it enhanced the daily sausage ($12). On this visit, the sausage contained duck and cherry on a bed of caramelized onions, topped with syrupy balsamic vinegar. Put together on a slice of bread, these items were a fantastic bite to eat.
If that mouthful of goodness wasn't enough to save the night, the raclette garni ($12) would have done the job. This interpretation of the Swiss and French classic had the traditional melted raclette cheese paired with small roasted potatoes, ham and brown bread. The cheese was heated and served in a small cast iron pan. As it cooled, the texture and flavor became nuttier. Combined with the other items, it was like eating a small but extravagant breakfast sandwich.
Grand Cru does not serve dessert, so I opted for the French 75 cocktail ($9). A twist on the classic American recipe, this version had cognac instead of gin. The combination of cognac, lemon juice and champagne was unexpectedly bright and forward with a strong apple flavor. It's become my new favorite drink.
From the servers to the selection, Grand Cru is a fine place to start off or end a night on the town. Some plates succeed, some didn't — but all of them were made better with a great glass of wine, which Grand Cru serves flawlessly.
Back-story: A popular wine bar in Belvedere Square, Grand Cru also serves small plates.
Parking: Don't worry — Grand Cru has a parking lot that it shares with the rest of the Belvedere Square Marketplace.
Signature dish: The house charcuterie plate had a delicious selection of meats — the duck prosciutto and Binkert's salame were standouts
Where: 527 E. Belvedere Ave., Baltimore
Contact: 410-464-1944, grandcrubaltimore.com
Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday Note: The kitchen closes an hour before the bar.
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, AMEX