When business stalled at Vino Rosina, an upscale bistro in Harbor East's Bagby Building, the owners and management did something altogether surprising. They shut down Vino Rosina and reopened, a few week later, in the same space as a barbecue joint named Oliver Speck's.
Good for them.
There was nothing wrong with Vino Rosina, but, in the long run, there was nothing particularly compelling about it either and little to distinguish it from it Harbor East neighbors, including a few bistros that had moved into the same building.
What Harbor East didn't have, the team decided, was a good barbecue restaurant. Now it does. And the other thing that the posh district was missing was a casual space where friends and strangers could gather to watch the Orioles or Ravens game on television. Now, Harbor East has that, too.
Jesse Sandlin, the "Top Chef" contestant who helped open Vino Rosina, is in charge of things at Oliver Speck's — she had left Vino Rosina within a year of its opening but came back late last year. I liked her food at Vino Rosina, but I like even more what she's doing at Oliver Speck's, which is named for Sandlin's pet Juliana pig.
The menu at Oliver Speck's is accessible, and it's affordable, too. There are four basic barbecue choices — racks of pork spare ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken brined with sweet tea. Smartly, Sandlin has decided not to claim any particular style or genre for her barbecue. There are elements from all over, but basically Sandlin has set out to make the best barbecue she can.
I'm all for it. When it comes to barbecue, I'm not against authenticity but I don't care about it much. Why should I care, when I'm flipping over juicy, meaty spice-rubbed ribs, all coated with a tangy tomato sauce that has pleasing notes of vinegar and pepper? Is Sandlin's pulled pork an exemplar of barbecue from the eastern part of North Carolina or the western half of South Carolina? Who cares, it's rich and tangy but neither swimming in cider vinegar nor sinking in mustard.
The beef brisket flabbergasted the native Texan at our table, who had never seen brisket without a "smoke ring" before. Oliver Speck's thick, wonderful, brown-edged, melt-in-your-mouth version, which Sandlin prepares with a combination of techniques, from smoking to sous-vide, could pass for great roasted Jewish-style brisket. When we visited, Sandlin was still fine-tuning her method for smoking chicken. The serving we had was very dry, but we've since heard from Sandlin, who told us she's made some adjustments, switching from a hot- to a cold-smoking method.
Backing up the main offerings are fresh-looking and tasty sides like baked beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamy grits and a firm, German-style potato salad laced with bits of bacon and eggs. Sandlin is also serving some good-looking salads, like an arugula BLT with bacon, corn bread croutons and ripe tomatoes, and a handful of small seafood-based dishes like plump and juicy fried oyster, coated in cornmeal and served with a hot-sauce mayonnaise, and a pretty plate of smoked trout, salmon, clams and mussels. Sandlin has also brought back her popular 16-legged burger, a combination of lamb, beef, pork and bison meat.
Beforehand, there are small, shareable portions of homey things such as pickled vegetables, deviled eggs, biscuits with homemade jam and pork cracklins. The food is served in jars and on patterned plates that look they've been taken from the shelves off a farmhouse cabinet.
It's all just cute enough without being precious. The look of Oliver Speck's is not so much different than Vino Rosina's. It's still a handsome and upbeat environment. The changes are subtle ones. The bar is no longer portioned off from the main dining room, which is now dominated by a mammoth farmers table. The atmosphere is looser, though. The friendly and knowledgeable staff is wearing black logo T-shirts. The front bar now draws a different, less edgy crowd, as likely to have their eyes on the Orioles game as they are on each other.
Oliver Speck's has less of a focus on wine and more on cocktails, bourbon and whiskey. There are local drafts from Union Craft Brewing and Stillwater Artisanal Ales, a handful of potent cocktails and, for soft drinkers, both bottled water and homemade sweet tea.
Dessert is good, homespun stuff like bourbon-soaked pecan pie and fruit cobbler served with homemade ice cream.
Sandlin said she's planning to start offering fixed-price Sunday Supper menus, with main plates of things like pot roast, or as Sandlin calls them, "grandmother's stuff."
But I wouldn't wait for a Sunday to drop in on Oliver Speck's. The good times are now.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 507 S. Exeter St., Little Italy
Contact: 410-528-8600, oliverspecks.com
Prices: Appetizers $4 -$8 ; entrees $10 -$24
Food: Barbecue, with seafood specialties, salads and sandwiches
Service: Very informed, with good advice about planning out a meal
Best dishes: Pork spare ribs, fried oysters and beef brisket
Parking/Accessibility: On-street metered parking and nearby lots
Outdoor: There are a few tables on the Exeter Street sidewalk
Children: There are a few menu items for children, and a children's menu is in formation.
Noise level/televisions: The volume on the TVs at the bar is typically off; the quietest tables are toward the back.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]