Tucked in a house in the maritime-centric neighborhood of Eastport, VIN 909 proves that Annapolis cuisine has more to offer than crab cakes and rockfish.
The duo behind the wine cafe, manager/owner/sommelier (and Annapolis native) Alex Manfredonia and Chef Justin Moore, met while working in a San Francisco restaurant. When they decided to head back to the East Coast to open a restaurant of their own, they moved into the space that formerly housed the Wild Orchid Café.
The duo brought along a love for the Mediterranean-inspired cuisine of California, plus a commitment to environmental sustainability — working with local farmers and using organic ingredients. With a creative touch in the kitchen and knowledgeable service, VIN 909 adds something special to the Annapolis food scene.
VIN 909 doesn't take reservations. On a recent Friday night, tables of two sat right away, but bigger groups waited by the door, with drinks from the curved bar that anchors the restaurant's main room. Inside, diners have a choice between sitting at regular tables, grabbing a bar stool or lounging at low tables with plush chairs.
A concrete patio behind the restaurant adds additional year-round seating, thanks to plastic sidewalls and space heaters. The whole place has a moderately casual cafe vibe that straddles the line between bar and restaurant, with a mix of cozy tables for two and larger groups with people hopping from one table to another.
The constantly evolving wine menu is broken into three price range categories: $6, $8 and $12 per glass — each with an unusual mix of regions and grapes. From the $12 list, we tried the Domaine la Cabotte, a dry, sophisticated, organic Grenache/Syrah blend from France.
We also took a chance on the Familia Mayol from Argentina ($8), made with bonarda, a lesser-known grape, and were rewarded with a spicy and drinkable wine. The wine list includes starred recommendations from Manfredonia; our waitress gave us a few well-informed suggestions, as well. Beer drinkers are also in good shape, with an interesting list of craft beers to choose from.
The food at VIN 909 changes regularly, with pizzas and small plates designed for sharing, and soups, salads and paninis for those who prefer keeping their meals to themselves. The menu covers lots of bases, but does not include suggested wine pairings for each dish; we would have welcomed that advice.
We started with the fresh pulled warm mozzarella ($12) which, visually, was a stunner. It had a soft hunk of mozzarella, floating in a broth of soft yellow tomato puree, topped with twisted leaves of fried basil and balsamic "pearls" that looked like tiny caviar eggs scattered across the cheese. As pretty as it looked, the unusual dish tasted even better, with the salty, creamy mozzarella neatly balanced by the mild acidity of the warm tomato and the sharper bites of acid from the balsamic.
Our next dish, duck confit over a parsnip puree, in a sauce of the duck's own juice and slivered almonds ($14), was less creative but just as tasty as the mozzarella. The salty duck played off the sweetness of the parsnips and almonds, with the nuts adding just a little crunch.
Hearth-cooked pizzas arrive on wooden boards, with thin, crispy crusts and a brightly acidic tomato sauce. We tried the Spotted Pig ($13), which comes topped with mozzarella and provolone, plus soppressata and house-made wild boar meatballs, which added a slightly gamey flavor that gave the whole pizza a sophisticated air.
Though service was prompt and knowledgeable overall, after our pizza, we sat for a little too long with empty glasses and plates. When our waitress made it back to our table, we discovered she had forgotten to place our order for Brussels sprouts. She quickly apologized, and we opted for coffee and dessert instead of the sprouts.
VIN 909 offers several different coffee roasts, served in individual French presses. We noticed a distinct difference between the lighter and darker roasts as we lingered over dessert.
On the recommendation of our waitress, we tried the chocolate pot de crème ($6.50), a dish of intense, thick chocolate, and the surprisingly airy butterscotch pudding ($6.50), made by whipping a rich butterscotch base into cream. The butterscotch pudding was accessorized by two caramelita points — chewy cookies of caramel coated with nuts, brown sugar and chocolate that added crunch and depth to the light dessert.
VIN 909's strongest dishes, like the pulled mozzarella, are the ones that combine high quality ingredients with complicated, creative technique. According to Chef Moore, as the menu evolves, it will include more of these dishes that require extra effort in the kitchen. He's looking forward to the culinary challenge — and everyone else should look forward to the results.
Back-story: VIN 909 is an Annapolis wine cafe with a creative and modern spin on California-Mediterranean cuisine, a diverse wine list and a commitment to local ingredients and sustainable practices
Parking: There is a lot on the side of the restaurant
Signature dish: The fresh pulled warm mozzarella ($12) looked pretty and tasted even better, with the salty, creamy mozzarella neatly balanced by the mild acidity of the warm tomato and the sharper bites of acid from the balsamic.
Where: 909 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis
Contact: 410-990-1846, vin909.com
Open: Lunch noon-3 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; Dinner 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]