If you can’t afford a luxurious getaway this summer, don’t despair. Treat yourself to a meal at Le Comptoir du Vin, where dinner will make you feel like you’re on vacation. And it’s cheaper than an Airbnb in France.
First impressions: Step inside the converted rowhouse, formerly occupied by Bottega, and feel that you’ve walked inside a cool countryside cafe that only locals would know about. The floors are weather-beaten, the walls are white and the menu is scrawled on mirrors. Quirky touches like a taxidermied marlin mounted on the wall and picture of Goldie Hawn in the kitchen create a homey feel. The wine bar has just a few tables.
The relaxed vibe is intentional, says Chef Will Mester, and inspired by trips that he and partner Rosemary Liss took in Europe and Asia.
Must-tries: In the kitchen, Mester, formerly of Woodberry Kitchen, takes ordinary items and makes them extraordinary. Bountiful salads crunch with diverse greens and radishes that taste as though they were just plucked from the soil. The menu changes regularly; during a recent visit, roast chicken a la greque ($24) was a tantalizing entree with crispy chicken atop marinated feta, beans and olives. For dessert, pound cake ($8) received a new lease on life with a topping of tangy creme fraiche littered with shards of maple candies.
If you couldn’t see the entire kitchen from the dining room, it would be hard to believe that such phenomenal dishes came from such a tiny staff: there’s Mester, fellow Woodberry Kitchen alum Kelsey Martin making breads and desserts, another woman doing dishes, and two servers, including Liss.
Special touches: Le Comptoir du Vin attracts a mix of twenty-something restaurant workers on their days off and well-heeled baby boomer gourmands. But Liss makes everyone feel like a friend. Ask her how “Grandpa toast” ($12) — an ingenious dessert with foie gras and maple syrup — got its name, and she’ll tell you about a trip to Montreal.
Liss and Mester met here a few years ago while both were working at Bottega. Mester was in the kitchen and Liss working in the front of the house.
Pro tip: Alcohol is a mainstay at Le Comptoir du Vin, which translates into “The Wine Counter.” Liss and Mester offer a selection of natural wines, organically farmed and with minimal additives.
“It’s really just the wine that we like to drink,” Mester said.
During a warm spring day, a glass of rose ($10) proved a refreshing and drinkable option.
After dinner, we tried a snifter of fernet ($10), a bitter Italian liquor that’s gaining currency in the U.S. It’s an acquired taste. We haven’t got it yet.
The bottom line: At first it feels wrong to pay $8 for two slabs of sourdough as an appetizer. But one bite of the bread at Le Comptoir du Vin, char-grilled and lathered in salt and olive oil, and you stop asking questions and instead fantasize about the new life that you and the sourdough will be living together.
1729 Maryland Ave., Station North, 443-297-7384, comptoirbaltimore.com. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Accepts reservations.