Small plates make big hits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Who could guess from looking at it that the Iron Bridge Wine Company was once a biker bar? (At least according to our waiter.) True, the outside has something of a roadhouse feel to it -- an unassuming building perched on the side of a busy highway. But inside is a stylish wine bar, cafe, gourmet coffee bar and wine shop.

Most of the walls are lined with wines -- around 250 are for sale. The rest of the wall space is sponge-painted gold, while the ceiling and exposed pipes are a warm brick red. A good portion of the room is taken up with the curved bar, but there's just room enough for 12 tiny tables, most of which are lined up in a row along a wooden bench running the length of one wall. The tables for two are pushed together or not, depending on the size of your party.

Somehow owners Rob and Steve Wecker have managed to fit in a petite lounge area with a curvy contemporary loveseat and two armchairs around a low coffee table. You can eat here if you have to. The plus is curl-up comfortable seating -- the armchairs sure beat the wooden bench and chairs. The minus is leaning over to eat.

Wine is treated with respect but no pretentiousness here. All the bottles for sale can be had at your table for a $5 corkage fee. There's also an excellent selection by the glass. If the Iron Bridge was just a wine bar with munchies, it would be worth a visit. But surprise: The munchies turn out to be world class -- California-style with Pacific Rim and Italian overtones.

I'm not the first person to discover this. Eating there is something like being at a cocktail party. From what I've heard, the place is jam-packed most of the time, and no reservations are taken. What started as a wine bar has rapidly turned into a restaurant where people go to have a meal, with maybe a nice McManis pinot grigio on the side. The wait for a table wasn't bad on a Sunday evening. The problem was that with only three burners on his stove, Chef Marc Dixon has trouble keeping up with the orders.

We started with wines by the glass, a tapenade and a cheese plate while we sat in the comfy chairs and waited for a table. This is food for the eye as well as the tongue. Nothing too fussy, but the food is designed with almost Asian precision. A creamy chevre, a sharper, semi-firm Manchego and full-bodied blue share plate space with a neat bunch of red grapes and two thin breadsticks resting on the grapes like chopsticks. (More breadsticks, flatbread and baguette come on the side.) The tapenade is presented yin and yang -- half made with green olives, half with ripe. The supporting players, triangles of warm pita seasoned with lemon and pepper, are so good they overshadow the star.

The menu always includes three entrees: one vegetarian dish, one seafood and one meat or poultry. If only from the prices, under $15, you can probably tell they are glorified small plates. A few tender slices of pink duck breast nestle on top of a small cloud of corn pudding, with baby green beans adding color and flavor but not a great deal of substance to the plate. A little red wine reduction plays prettily around the edges of the concoction. The result is fabulous but not filling.

Risotto Iron Bridge-style is a dish you won't get bored with, strewn as it is with colorful summer vegetables -- fresh tomatoes, squash, sugar snap peas and asparagus. Shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano add salty bite. A tuna steak, seared boldly red, is well served by its understated melon salsa. Fragrantly flavorful Jasmine rice tumbles beneath it, with sprigs of jewel-green baby arugula.

None of these is substantially more a main course than the flatbread pizza or the wonderful Frog's Legs Con "Fusion" listed as a starter. Two frog's legs, gently sauteed, have a slightly Asian, slightly fruity sauce that intensifies their delicate flavor without overwhelming it. A crisp, whimsical minibasket made of grated sweet potato spills over with more of that baby arugula, which must be straight from someone's garden locally. The pizza, made with pita topped with fontina, prosciutto and onions, is less innovative but still satisfying in its modest way.

Have the tuna tartare served in a martini glass with baby arugula and mustard-sparked aioli, and you get almost as much fish as you do with a main course. Order a couple of small plates, have some wine, and then order a couple more.

Gazpacho with a drizzle of avocado cream and a mesclun salad with a tomato basil vinaigrette were rather ordinary, but if that's the worst I can say about a restaurant's food, that's praise indeed.

The admirable restraint found in most of the dishes is nowhere to be seen in Iron Bridge's desserts, which seem to be trying to outdo each other as far as extravagance, calories and chocolate are concerned. You could go with the passion fruit mousse or the angel food cake topped with berries, but I vote for the chocolate.

The Iron Bridge Wine Company joins the list of new small-plate restaurants that are all the vogue and also among our most successful. It's the way a lot of people want to eat these days. The only downside is that when the Iron Bridge gets slammed, the kitchen can't quite keep up with the demand.

Iron Bridge Wine Company

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 10435 Route 108, Columbia

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $5-15; main courses, $10-$13

Call: 410-997-3456

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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