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Vino Rosina works to find its bearings

RestaurantsDining and Drinking

One of the city's best-looking and most comfortable warehouse restaurants, Vino Rosina is still a tempting destination for the date-nighters who pour into Harbor East on weekends, a neighborhood that Baltimore diners have come to associate with high-energy, glitzy dining. The square-shaped bar remains a great place to start or end a Harbor East evening, even if you're not dining at Vino Rosina.

Vino Rosina opened with "Top Chef" alumna Jesse Sandlin as executive chef in May 2010. That doesn't sound so long ago, but in restaurant years, it can be an eternity, especially in a fast-changing neighborhood like Harbor East, where the tide can shift in a second. Ten Ten and Wit & Wisdom have moved in, Ouzo Bay opened only weeks ago, and the official debut of Fleet Street Kitchen is set for Thursday.

Competition isn't a bad thing. A rising tide lifts all ships, except the ones in the doldrums. And at Vino Rosina, there's been sufficient turnover, in front of the house and in the kitchen, to invite a check-in. Devlyn Ray is the restaurant's third executive chef, having taken over in February from Sajin Renae, who left to open Fork & Wrench.

Ray has talent and promise. He offered, when we visited, a special entree — a duck confit lasagna served in a casserole — that was both brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed, a perfect dish for a wine-focused restaurant. Ray laced large ovals of pasta with his flavorful duck meat, rich goat-cheese bechamel and just the right amount of cheddar, fontina and Parmesan.

But even six months after he started, it's hard to find his stamp on the Vino Rosina menu, where you see reminders of his predecessors. The menu is still separated into small plates intended for sharing and traditional entrees. The cheese section remains but feels unconnected to the cuisine. Local sourcing is mentioned on the restaurant's website, but the menu offers no evidence of this.

And not everything worked as well as the duck lasagna. We were among the evening's first diners, and it's possible the kitchen found the rhythm it was missing during our meal, which was riddled with temperature and assembly problems.

A bouillabaisse — the evening's fish of the day — was served no warmer than tepid, which made it difficult to know whether Ray's non-traditional recipe, one with scant tomato presence and the unusual addition of salmon, or something salmon-like, was a good idea. Overcooking made it hard tell whether the new hamburger, the Jimbo, is a good replacement for the menu's "16-legged burger," a doozy made from ground pork, lamb, bison and beef.

A prawn and polenta appetizer sounded so good on the menu, but it was unclear, upon arrival, whether it was meant to be served warm or room temperature. The two large shrimp were spiced nicely and grilled well, and the agave-apricot reduction and serrano corn salsa dressing were good ideas, but the cheddar polenta was unpleasantly clumpy. Another quibble — the dish is priced reasonably at $8, but with only two shrimp, it doesn't share well.

Neither did another appetizer, a do-it-yourself version of Mexican grilled corn, or elote. This was fun, at least at first. You're meant to roll the cobs first in a Sriracha mayonnaise and then in smoked salt. But you're only given one cob, sliced into fourths, to play with. Just as you're getting started, it's gone. The best appetizer was a version of that popular raw tuna in a martini glass, here called the tuna 'tini," and consisting of ahi tuna and avocado topped with a smooth and mild wasabi sorbet. This too, was hard to share, and it wasn't clear whether the chopsticks in the glass were there for show or for use.

There were things to like about other dishes. An appetizer of roasted duck breast, seared foie gras and forbidden rice was cooked well. But because the duck and the liver look so much alike on the plate, the presentation is lackluster. With its pretty pepper-ginger bisque, quinoa "meat" balls were an earnest attempt at providing a bistro-pretty entree for vegetarians. But even with a disc of goat cheese, it was all pretty dry and flavorless.

The best thing at dessert are the homemade sorbets, which are offbeat flavors like cantaloupe and Concord grape. A Nutella pound cake had no taste of hazelnut, and none of us came close to guessing what, besides pineapple, was in the pineapple upside-down cake served in a jar.

Elsewhere, the program of infused vodkas and specialty vodkas remains in good shape, The wine list remains accessible, too. There are flights to get diners started and, at the table, pairing recommendations for the entrees.

Given the chance to rethink Vino Rosina's menu, Ray will be worth watching. But the kitchen needs the support of the strong and vigilant ownership, and diners need to feel like every night matters.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Vino Rosina

Rating: ¿

Where: 507 S. Exeter St., Little Italy

Contact: 410-528-8600, vinorosina.com

Open: Weekdays for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner, closed Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$11; entrees, $15-$25

Food: Small and large plates of modern American food

Service: Professional but perfunctory, with a noticeable absence of bus staff

Best dishes: Tuna "Tini," duck confit lasagna, homemade cantaloupe sorbet

Children: There's not much here for even older children

Parking: Street parking, mostly metered, with discounted parking after 6 p.m. at nearby lots

Reservations: Accepted for all party sizes at all times

Noise level: Tolerable for most diners

Outdoor seating: Tables in front of restaurant entrance

[Key: Superlative: ¿¿¿¿¿ ; Excellent:¿¿¿¿ ; Very Good: ¿¿¿; Good: ¿¿; Promising: ¿]

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