One of the most appetizing-looking places along North Washington Street in the heart of Havre de Grace is the Vineyard Wine Bar. It’s even more appetizing inside, where you may easily find yourself whiling away the vintages for hours.
Launched in 2009, this establishment is clearly devoted to wine, but avoids the pretension that can emerge in oenological circles. And it’s just as devoted to culinary pursuits, which are handled with such flair that a teetotaler could have a good time there. (That the background music includes Ella Fitzgerald and other greats is one more plus for the place.)
It’s a cozy restaurant — OK, maybe a little cramped when packed. The dining-drinking room sports a handsome, bottle-filled wooden bar. An adjoining room is filled with wines for retail sale and also offers a pleasant lounging area.
In addition to a menu, we were handed a three-page, single-spaced list of wines available by the bottle, the glass (most of them priced in the single digits) and a 3-ounce pour for tasting (many around $4). Even those to the grape born may need some time to get the full measure of the selections.
But the Vineyard’s knowledgeable wait staff is at the ready to make suggestions for effective food-wine pairings. Our server provided such guidance with aplomb and, again, not the slightest whiff of attitude.
I especially appreciated the recommendation of a chocolate-y Kilikanoon shiraz to pair with beef, and an elegant San Giuseppe Amarone with lamb. We also enjoyed whites from France and Italy and greatly appreciated truly stellar Silverado and Stags’ Leap cabernets.
The ingesting held as many rewards as the imbibing, starting with the kale panzanella. In this take on traditional Italian bread salad, crunchy kale, deftly dressed in sherry vinaigrette with fennel and basil, combined to piquant effect with Tuscan white beans, pecorino cheese, pine nuts and croutons.
You know a good kitchen when an everyday item like Caesar salad looks and tastes as if the idea were new. The romaine was at peak freshness. The subtle dressing was boosted with welcome notes of pecorino cheese and the charming flourish of a pecorino-rosemary crisp.
Among the flatbreads, we opted for a basic one. If you think you can’t go wrong with a Margarita, you don’t get out much. It may be the simplest of varieties, but you sure can tell when it’s taken for granted.
Not so here. The tomatoes, mozzarella and basil exuded freshness and flavor; the thin crust satisfied. The only downside was that, in the short distance from kitchen to table, it cooled off quite a bit.
When it comes to the main part of the tapas-inspired menu, the small plates are divided into light-, medium- and full-bodied. Since we would be heading out into 11-degree weather after dining, we skipped past the light and headed straight to the heartier, where we found a memorable gem in the form of meatballs en croute.
This potentially routine item impressed with its nuanced approach to Italian seasoning of the meat and the beautifully made pastry, resting on a demure portion of well-balanced tomato sauce.
Our full-bodied plates included a perfectly seared grilled beef tenderloin, with a rosemary-enhanced jus lie. Tri-color fingerling potatoes and baby carrots, roasted in shallot butter, made for hearty partners.
Also impressive was the salmon Wellington, a surefire version of the classic beef preparation. Inside the fine pastry, moist and flavorful Alaskan salmon clicked beautifully with a cream cheese topping tinged with dill, accented by capers and red onions. More dill, in a creme fraiche, and lemon caper butter provided the welcome finishing touches.
The grilled lamb porterhouse was tender, if bland, and rested on a vibrant, thyme-inflected risotto that gained an additional boost from roasted root vegetable ratatouille.
For dessert, we sampled a bread pudding of abundant character (a dollop or two more of creme anglaise on the plate would have been welcome). The cheesecake, boasting textbook creaminess and a thin, crisp topping of creme caramel, capped our unhurried, genial meal.
The Vineyard Wine Bar
142 N. Washington St., Havre de Grace
The vibe: A mix of serious wine connoisseurs and regular folks in a laid-back setting.
You’ll fit in wearing: Casual attire
Don’t miss: Meatballs en croute
Best for kids: There is no children’s menu, but the flatbreads should provide an appealing option. Note that the restaurant admits no one under 12 after 5 p.m.
Handicap accessible: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $9 to $13; entrees (small plates) $9 to $22