Since 2009, 13.5% Wine Bar has announced its presence on the Avenue in Hampden with larger-than-life orange letters spelling out its name. You can't miss it. But these days, there's reason to look closer.
This year, the establishment made a subtle but telling change to its facade, when it added a logo to the front door. The artwork gave the space a somewhat new name: 13.5% Wine + Food.
The change came just after Cyrus Keefer took over the kitchen. Keefer, who made a name for himself at several Baltimore restaurants, including Birroteca and Fork & Wrench, joined 13.5% as executive chef last spring, after plans for a "micro-restaurant" of his own fell through.
Since Keefer's start, the interior of the restaurant has changed slightly, with the kitchen moving to the basement to make room for a stage. But the high ceilings, wall of wine, funky orange stools and buzzy vibe of 13.5% remain.
The real changes occurred on the menu, which Keefer immediately began overhauling. His vision includes shareable dishes that move beyond typical wine bar fare. For traditionalists just looking for a bite to go with their vino, the menu still includes meat and cheese boards. But people in search of more sophisticated, heartier dishes will find a lot to love among Keefer's assortment of creative plates.
The menu is divided into three categories: first, second and third. These roughly correspond to the heaviness of the dishes, though diners should feel free to mix them up.
After selecting a handful of choices, we ceded control to our server, who spent a few minutes talking with us about pacing strategy before putting in our order. She was thoughtful and followed through with good timing throughout our meal; that matters more at 13.5% than it would at a restaurant where the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert pattern reigns.
For the most part, the food was excellent, showing off Keefer's ability to experiment without getting weird. The choices are priced reasonably and none of the servings are enormous, so trying something new doesn't feel like a big commitment or risk.
Chicken liver mousse, smeared on a board, was served with thick slices of toast and juicy figs that highlighted the sweetness in the mousse. The dish was clearly designed with grazing and wine in mind: sweet, but serious enough to stand up to glasses of Chateau Bellevue, a cabernet-merlot blend from Bordeaux.
Long, narrow spring rolls looked simple, but proved to be anything but. Stuffed with shrimp and pork belly, the rolls were crispy on the outside and luscious, both in taste and texture, in the middle. The combination of sweet shrimp and fatty pork was irresistible, and the contrast between the crunchy exterior and soft center made us smile.
Our favorite plate, a trio of lamb meatballs with olives and baby broccoli, also looked straightforward, but tasted terrific. The meatballs were soft, pink on the inside and seasoned gorgeously, highlighting the flavor of the lamb but avoiding any gaminess.
A shallow bowl of goat cheese dumplings in smoky marinara wasn't quite a clunker, but it was our least favorite. The sauce was bright, but not quite smoky enough, and though we liked the addition of briny capers, we wished there were more of them. The thumbnail-size dumplings had nice, tangy flavor, but some were a little denser than we wanted them to be.
In a vacuum, the dish would have been a success, but next to the rest of the meal, it fell flat.
The kitchen redeemed itself with French bread pizza, a dish that Keefer says is a favorite among diners. While the thick bread reminded us of Stouffer's frozen version, available in grocery stores across the country, the toppings bore little resemblance to that guilty pleasure. Slices of chorizo and plump escargot mingled with mozzarella and chunky tomato sauce. This was grown-up, eat-with-a-fork pizza, and we loved it.
Not surprisingly, 13.5% offers a strong selection of wine, but the short cocktail list yields some good finds, too. Both the Summer Neckin', a mix of rye and honey garnished with a grilled nectarine, and the Forgotten Summer, a vodka, gin and lavender creation, were well-balanced and smart.
Dessert isn't the restaurant's focus, and the menu includes only three choices. We tried the lemon budino, a creamy concoction of lemon, vanilla and mascarpone served in a Mason jar. Though we were surprised by the bitterness of the tiny sprinkles of candied lemon scattered on top, overall, the dessert struck the right balance between tart and sweet.
There are still more changes to come at 13.5%. Keefer and company are rolling out new menu items on a regular basis and are launching a separate, late-night Asian fusion restaurant concept, called Defie Mois, in the basement of the space.
A state of constant change suits Keefer and his team. But do not let all the new happenings distract you. What they have put into place at 13.5% is fantastic just as it is.
13.5% Wine Bar
Where: 1117 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 410-889-1064; 135winebar.com
Open: Mondays through Thursdays, 5 p.m. to about 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. to about midnight; Sundays, 4 p.m. to about 9 p.m. (bar and basement stay open later)
Prices: Shared plates, $5 to $12
Food: Small and midsize creative plates to share
Noise/TVs: Moderate to loud, with two televisions, turned on by request, in the bar
Service: Friendly and well-paced
Parking: Street parking
Special diets: Some vegan options are available, and the kitchen will accommodate special dietary needs.
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Hampden/Woodberry
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