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Full-bodied swank but anemic food at Sip Wine & Dine

I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was reviewing Sip Wine & Dine, the new restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Residences, a luxury condominium complex on Key Highway. He hadn't been, but his parents, who live at the Ritz-Carlton, had.

He told me his folks were pretty happy with Sip Wine & Dine. They love that they finally have a place to walk to within the sprawling harborside complex. They've been running into neighbors there, where everyone just sort of showed up to watch the Ravens playoff games in the swanky wine lounge.

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And the lounge was packed on the Thursday night we visited. Patrons appeared to be really enjoying the space, and especially the 72-bottle self-serve wine system that acts as both the room's visual focus and its main attraction.

I've seen these systems before, but nothing on the scale of what's at Sip Wine & Dine. If the wine-dispensing systems were clunky space hoggers, this new one — which wraps around two walls — is sleek, streamlined and a little bit gorgeous. We saw patrons perusing the displayed bottles, reading the taste notes and using prepaid cards to dispense full and half-glasses and even 1-ounce pours of wine.

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Those 1-ounce pours, which the restaurant calls "sips," are nearly irresistible, especially with prices starting at 90 cents for a thirst-quenching Vinhas Altas Vinho Verde from Portugal, and dozens available for less than the cost of a one-way light rail ticket.

Sip Wine & Dine started in Milton, Ga., where it began as a boutique wine shop named Sip owned by Amy and Foster Smith. The Smiths were later joined by another couple, Ann and Mark Jacobs, who helped them expand the concept into a tapas restaurant and wine bar. The couples together own two Sip Wine & Dines in the Atlanta area in addition to the Baltimore restaurant. A fourth is coming to Arlington, Va., this spring.

If Sip Wine & Dine has quickly won over not only the Ritz-Carlton crowd but a decent showing from the outside world, I think it's partly due to sheer Southern hospitality. The staff members I've encountered there, both in person and over the phone, are extremely gracious.

Based on what I saw and ate, I don't think people are coming to Sip Wine & Dine for food, which seemingly is being made with good ingredients and the best of intentions but less attention to flavor.

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The only dish I'm willing to recommend is the appetizer of papas fritas: potato crisps fried in bacon fat and served with a spicy homemade ketchup. This was the first thing we tried, and we thought, "Well, OK, this is going to be good."

We became less convinced as things went on. In an appetizer of hickory-smoked oysters, the lemon confit dominated all of the other ingredients — garlic, chilies and parsley, as well as the smoky flavor. The broth of double-cream, stout and herbs in a bowl of mussels was milky and bland. The ordering options for a charcuterie board consisted entirely of two meats and two cheeses, both from the same California cheese maker. That's kind of weird for a wine bar.

The best of three unsuccessful entrees was a sous-vide brick chicken, in which the crispy skin promised on the menu was not crispy and the chicken underseasoned. As for the sides, we liked the smooth, brown-butter potato puree — we'd like brown-butter anything — but the accompanying cubes of butternut squash and apple were nearly raw.

An entree of Thai curry with white Georgia shrimp and lemongrass had no curry flavor. A crispy Georgian pork belly was underseasoned and not crispy.

Dessert seem meager. Only three options were mentioned tableside, but the one we wanted, chocolate beignets, were no longer available that night. We settled for a chocolate mousse, which had a raspberry cream underneath its top chocolate layer that we weren't informed of and didn't care for.

But dessert and charcuterie were among the things that are works in progress. So let's hope the food gets better sooner rather than later at Sip Wine & Dine, which I have to say I left having mostly good feelings about.

I like the feel of the place, which is done up in that farmhouse-chic style — distressed surfaces, halogen lights and reclaimed materials — that has become the prevailing restaurant aesthetic of our time. Sip Wine & Dine works a particularly pretty interpretation of this motif over three distinct settings: a large, rectangular dining room at the back; a narrow dining area with seating at the restaurant's open kitchen; and the entrance area, which includes both the bar proper and a large lodge-style seating area that serves as the wine lounge, the establishment's nerve center.

We saw people having fun here, which is something we don't see every day.

Sip Wine & Dine

Rating:<¿¿1/2

Where: 807 Key Highway, The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Inner Harbor

Contact: 667-239-3105, sipbaltimore.com

Open: Mondays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; bar open later

Prices: Appetizers $5 to $10, entrees $18 to $22

Food: American bistro food

Service: Attentive and friendly with good recommendations

Parking: Valet service for $5 after 5 p.m.; on-street parking at meters and a nearby garage

Children: A small children's menu includes grilled cheese, pasta with butter.

Noise level/televisions: Conversation is easy. There are three televisions in the wine lounge with their volume off, except for major sporting events.

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

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