We love a good anniversary. Baltimore is about to host a huge, weeklong celebration for the 200th anniversary of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Unless they're traveling by frigate, everybody and his brother is going to be passing through Locust Point on the way to Fort McHenry.
Also celebrating — Locust Point's own Wine Market Bistro, which is marking its 10th anniversary this month with various promotions and by feting diners with complimentary hors d'ouevres and wine tastings.
The restaurant has earned the celebration. Ten years is an eternity in the restaurant business, and Wine Market Bistro gets bonus points for persevering on what is essentially a peninsula. Credit owner Christopher Spann for creating a reliable destination for sophisticated dining and maintaining a comfortable gathering spot for residents of South Baltimore.
In other words, Wine Market Bistro works just as well for a long Saturday night steak-and-wine dinner as it does for a Tuesday night burger at the bar.
Wine Market Bistro has grown on me, the way a place will. The restored industrial space, one in a complex of buildings known as the Foundry on Fort, has lost its sharp edges. The main dining area, a high-ceilinged rectangle with a long bar at one end, has mellowed and softened. Over a decade, there have been subtle but effective improvements in the decor, things like new dining chairs and bar stools that add a touch of glamour to a room that formerly felt like a museum cafeteria.
Or maybe I've mellowed. I was happy, on a Saturday night, just to relax over a good dinner that wasn't trying to tell me anything. The menu at Wine Market Bistro, which is currently credited to chef Kevin Christian, has influences from all over — a Mediterranean lamb "burger" with harissa sauce and yogurt dressing, a German-style chicken schnitzel with mustard spaetzle, Southern-style cornmeal-fried oysters.
It's the kind of bistro menu we used to call eclectic, a style which has fallen somewhat out of favor. Bistro menus nowadays have stronger, more coherent personalities. reflections of a specific cuisine, hot dining trend or ambitious chef. The eclectic style invites diners to choose on a whim, and, for the most part, Wine Market Bistro rewards those choices.
We loved the plump, juicy and crispy cornmeal fried oysters, which Christian served with a solid beurre blanc, a modest touch in that it keeps the diner's attention on the oysters, and not on the chef. But we admired, too, the creativity in an heirloom tomato salad, which was dressed with an anchovy vinaigrette, garnished with pickled shallots and topped with Parmesan and browned bread crumbs.
If an occasional dish, such as an appetizer of pork and shrimp dumplings, falls through the cracks, it's because they lack the true-flavor appeal of the oysters or the curiosity factor of the tomato salad. They're good, the dumplings, but a bit ordinary.
Entrees are like that, too — sometimes amazing, sometimes only fine. The chicken schnitzel was a peach of an entre — a juicy cutlet of chicken, its crunchy breading seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, browned and served over a pile of richly sauced mustard spaetzle and topped with a salad of colorful pickled beets.
We wanted something more from the pickled Virginia shrimp. Listed among the menu's midplates, it came across too much like a luncheon salad. A 16-ounce dry-aged rib eye was handsomely plated with sauteed greens and a bright, garlic-y chimichurri sauce but it was a little too tough.
For dessert, there is strong French press coffee and more eclecticism — there's a wholesome and carefully arranged basil cake with rhubarb consomme and strawberry-sour cream ice cream but also an intensely rich flourless chocolate cake with brandied creme fraiche and cherries soaked in vanilla liqueur.
We had fine service at Wine Market Bistro, with particularly good advice from our waiter about pacing and wine pairings. The wine program overall is well thought out and very diner-friendly, with optional 3-ounce pours for most wines by the glass, good pairing advice on the printed menu and discounts in the wine shop for bistro diners.
Wine Market Bistro
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 921 E. Fort Ave., Locust Point
Contact: 410-244-6166, winemarketbistro.com
Open: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$15; entrees and sandwiches: $24-$38
Food: American bistro cuisine
Service: Professional, informed and personable
Parking: Ample parking on property lot
Outdoor seating: The courtyard patio seats 40
Children: Children are welcome, and the kitchen is happy to adjust menu items
Special diets: The kitchen can accommodate most dietary restrictions
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining room. There are no televisions in the restaurant.
[Star key: Superlative: 5 Excellent: 4 Very Good: 3 Good: 2 Promising: 1]