I notice on Juniors' Web site that the Federal Hill restaurant is now called a "gastro pub" rather than a "wine bar." It was always a suspect wine bar anyway, simply because it seemed to be more of a restaurant than "wine bar" suggests. (Not that "gastro pub" gives you any better idea of what Juniors is like. It suggests a pub that has upped the quality of its food, but there's nothing publike about the place.)
In any case, the quality of the food isn't an issue at Juniors. Since Anthony Marini took over as executive concept chef - whatever that is - the food is imaginative and, for the most part, very good. The menu may wax a little poetic ( "Salad of Chopped Greens and Reds with Crunchy Vegetables, Blue Cheese and Grilled Citrus-Balsamic Vinaigrette"); but the result is an excellent salad of mesclun with radicchio and sliced radishes, and an acidic dressing so good you won't want to share.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I ate at Juniors when it first opened at the end of last year. I thought it was worth going back because there have been major changes. The latest chef is Marini, who comes from Birmingham, Ala., where he owned a couple of restaurants. He also runs a restaurant consulting firm. I'm not sure how that leaves him time to do anything but come up with concepts for Juniors, but he told me in a phone interview he was actually in the kitchen at the stove.
His first order of business was to cut down the number of items on the menu from about 30 to 16. Marini doesn't like the terms "small plates" or "tapas," but these aren't exactly traditional dinners.
If you're searching for a traditional dinner on the menu, you might overlook the pork belly tacos, which were wonderfully endearing. Of course, the menu changes daily, so they might not be on the menu when you go. The braised meat - soft, moist, and reminiscent in flavor of the best ham or bacon - is arranged in a pretty square surrounded by salsa verde (heavy on the cilantro), cotija cheese and sour cream. The tortillas come on the side.
Some dishes are relatively simple but satisfying, like local yellow beets with nam prik (Thai chile paste) and peanuts. Some take themselves a little too seriously, like the golden-crusted fried oysters described as "Cornmeal Dusted Blue Point Oysters with House Wood Smoked Mayonnaise." Order them anyway; they will make you happy.
But, for the most part, Marini is trying to have fun with his concepts, so there are, for instance, the "$100 Potatoes." These are fingerling potatoes fried in duck fat with a bit of bacon, creme fraiche, a little truffle puree and a lot of caviar. The interplay of the hot potatoes and cold cream along with the contrasting soft textures and crunch of the caviar is very appealing. The joke is that they cost $14.
The most expensive item on the menu - and at $22 the only dish over $20 - was a lobster meat "schnitzel" with a delicate gold exterior, accompanied by dainty gnocchi and a sauce something like creamed corn with chopped lobster in it.
The very few things I didn't like were mostly a matter of personal taste - the concept, not the execution, in other words. Chick peas just didn't belong with the delicate veal meatballs. Juniors' pizzas are now piadinas - flatbreads folded over greens with other ingredients. The one we tried was too greasy, and the goat cheese was too dominant a flavor. (I have to add that a friend loved it.)
One thing wasn't a matter of taste: When we asked for bread, the server told us Marini hadn't found a purveyor he was happy with yet, so we got a basket of undistinguished rolls. Sorry, but we have some very good local sources of bread in Baltimore. I'm surprised he hasn't discovered them two months after moving here.
Desserts are entertaining, and this would be a fine place to stop for dessert and coffee after a show because the coffee is good, too. My favorite was an apple tartlet with puff pastry, caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. Curry and ginger were supposedly accent flavors, but they were so subtle as to be nonexistent.
The blackberry-walnut crumble needed more time in the oven, but held promise. And a chocolate bread pudding was very adult: not very sweet, with a superb and unexpected basil ice cream.
Juniors was and is a handsome place to be, contemporary and warm at the same time. It's also noisy. The only shred of fabric in the place is the curtain that protects bar patrons from the chilly night air when the front door opens. This time of year, the best seats are as far from the front door as possible, in the dining room up a few steps near the open kitchen.
The disappointment for me this time was the service. Juniors' food is meant to be shared, and we asked for the dishes to be brought out as they were ready. We're used to waiting for food made to order, but there were long, long gaps between dishes. I was more than ready to leave by the end of the evening.
As for what our server could control, she was nice, intelligent and helpful, but it never occurred to her to wipe off the table before she put the next dishes down. Of course, we could have been neater; but we were passing food around. I finally got tired of looking at the sodden lettuce leaf and the crumbs and feeling the stickiness, and wiped down the table myself.
I started this by saying Juniors is no longer calling itself a wine bar, but I like what the restaurant is doing with its wines. It has a respectable international list with lots of reasonably priced bottles. I particularly like the fact that the wines by the glass are so reasonably priced. Yes, the drinkable $5 glass still exists.
Address:1117 S. Charles St., Federal Hill
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Prices: Nibbles, $4-$5; larger plates, $7-$22.
Contact: 410-727-1212, juniorswinebar.com.
Food: *** ( 3 STARS)
Service: ** ( 2 STARS)
Atmosphere: *** ( 3 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]