Friday, May 18, 2012

Vino Rosina Returns to Greatness

Vino Rosina has been an understated fixture in Baltimore's Harbor East for about as long as I have. They opened to little fanfare in 2010, about 18 months after I joined Laureate Education, located a block away. My coworkers and I have been regulars these last few years, due as much to their proximity as to their impressive wine collection.  The interior is wood and exposed brick with an open bar area and decorative wooden wine racks separating it from the dining room, creating a comfortable space. I also enjoy their food menu and have been watching it evolve.

Every so often, the menu is revamped. The base menu theme of flat bread pizzas, bistro sandwiches, and hearty salads remains the same, but the appetizers and bar menu are updated regularly to reflect a new emphasis. I recently learned that the menu overhaul is in part related to a corresponding kitchen overhaul as every spring, they acquire a new head chef.

There was much to-do about Top Chef contestant Jesse Sandlin taking the helm. Ms. Sandlin had earned a reputation prior to her stint on Bravo's cooking competition, working at fine Baltimore establishments like Pazo and the now defunct Abacrombie Seafood. She brought more game meats to the menu, including a melt-in-your-mouth rabbit terrine that I was quite fond of. Under her watch, the hummus was smooth, creamy and flavorful, and all the appetizers could be easily paired with the appropriate wine to create a superlative gastronomical experience that left the diner satisfied and pleasantly buzzed.

Then last spring the menu changed. The kitchen latched onto the unfortunate sliders trend that lasted all of a nano-second. The bold flavors that Ms. Sandlin created were replaced with those annoying little patties, including the 16-legged Slider, a combination of beef, bison, lamb, and venison ground into hamburger that managed to taste like just that - hamburger. Turns out the new menu was the creation of a new chef. With Ms. Sandlin's departure early last year, her sous chef Sanjin Renae was promoted, and the hit-or-miss menu suddenly made sense. Renea's background seems to be more high-volume, with experience at places like PF Chang's and The Loew's Annapolis. There were still some strong items on the menu, but the synergy between food and wine was diminished, and I frequently resorted to the cheese platter - always a good choice at a wine bar but not necessarily what I was going ot Vino Rosina for.

A few weeks back, Vino Rosina unveiled their new spring menu. The so-called comfort food is gone, and the restaurant appears to have returned to the holistic approach of the Sandlin reign in which the vast selection of wines is taken into account when creating each new dish. While the questionable sliders are still on the Happy Hour menu, the 16-Legged Slider has been replaced with a more reasonable lamb patty. More flavorful meats like duck and waygu are appearing on the new menu as well. All of this is the work of new chef Devlyn Ray.

I visited Vino Rosina for lunch this week to check out the new menu. I inquired about the soup du jour and was pleased to learn it was a red pepper bisque, usually a nice, flavorful soup that won't cause the afternoon sleepies. Nonetheless, I passed and ordered the Blackened Shrimp Cobb Salad. I got an appropriately-size portion of chopped Romaine lettuce generously spiked with a creamy Gorgonzola cheese and two large shrimp cooked to perfection.

Now, here is where I need to digress for a moment and discuss Maryland's love-hate relationship with shellfish. They love it here. But they love it drenched in Old Bay and cooked to the point of rubbery disaster, reflecting the regional fear of undercooked food. Crabs, lobster, shrimp, oysters, you name it - if it's in a shell, this is the default presentation. Why do that to seafood?

Which brings me back to the shrimp I had yesterday. They were seasoned with actual blackening, not the Old Bay that is so di riguer. They were also cooked to a tender, delicate perfection. Nestled atop the greens and drizzled lightly with avocado dressing and tossed with a scant smattering of finely chopped prosciutto, it was just what I had been looking for.

I am pleased with the changing of the guard at Vino Rosina. With a new chef and a return to a more elegant dining experience, they are back on my list of favorite restaurants.

Why can't all shellfish be served like this?

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Return to an Old Haunt

We discovered The Golden Szechuan Inn about 10 years ago when we first moved to Harford County and were living in a rental townhouse at Seven Oaks off Hansen Road in Edgewood. Back then, there was still a Blockbuster Video nearby. Back then, it was the only Blockbuster that carried DVDs. Ten of them. Times change.

We have been regular if infrequent customers for most of our years out here until our niece had an unfortunate experience, and we stopped going in solidarity with her. This was about three years ago. Now that she is in San Francisco, the ban has been lifted, and we had our Friday night dinner in our old haunt.

The menu has remained mostly unchanged. They still serve the Ginseng Chicken Soup I favor. The clear, light broth has an earthy flavor from the ginseng and often has a little gingery zing. There are also four our five modest strips of white meat chicken, but they neither add nor detract from the soup, and I quite frequently end up ignoring them.

My counterpart is partial to egg drop soup in general, and their egg drop soup in particular. It is thicker and richer than just about everyone else's. Plus there is an added depth of flavor that we believe comes from a little sesame oil.

There was one welcome addition to their offerings - a modest selection of Vietnamese noodle dishes that appeared to have  Thai influence, including pad thai and a number of basil dishes. I ordered rice noddles with chicken, basil, and tomatoes in a red curry sauce, anticipating something similar to Drunken Noodles. The sauce was flavorful but not as in your face as many of the curries I've eaten in Baltimore. The basil was whole and very forward, tasting almost like mint. The noodles were perfection. Topped with white meat chicken and fresh bean sprouts, this was not what I was expecting but was still highly satisfying.

Gareth ordered summer rolls for us as well. Pork, shrimp, lettuce and thin noodles wrapped in thin rice paper and served with the requisite peanut sauce, these were a refreshing substitute to the deep-fried egg roll that so often hit my belly with all the subtlety of a greasy torpedo.

We were very happy to find even a small menu of well-executed Vietnamese cuisine so close to home. I think we will  be visiting more frequently.

The Golden Szechuan Inn, like many Chinese restaurants in our area, also serves sushi. Their rolls are a generous size and are well-wrapped. The variety ranges from basic standards like California Roll and Salmon and Avocado to a selection of house specialties. They are located in Bel Air at the Great Intersection of Strip Malls at Routes 1 and 24 behind the Chili's.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Salad Named For an Emperor

So many foods taste so much better when prepared properly. This is especially noticeable with Caesar salad. It's easy to just toss together a half-assed Caesar salad like so many restaurants do. With romaine, croutons, a little hard cheese, and an egg-based dressing, a basic Caesar is fairly minimalist. But a good Caesar - that is minimalist art. Today's lunch included such a salad.

I did not pack a lunch for today, and ended up at the incomparable TenTen Bistro, my new favorite lunch hour haunt. I deviated from my usual Powerhouse Wrap and got a soup and salad combo. While this isn't actually a combo on their menu, it should be. Even so, when purchased a la carte, they cost the same as my usual sandwich.

This week's soup is a Spring Minestrone that I paired with their Caesar salad. And what I got was Caesar perfection. The server who packed up my to go order said that the greens were picked fresh on their affiliated farm just this morning, and that I could not get a fresher salad in Baltimore today. I thought it was just talk. It wasn't. I've heard of lettuce so fresh and tender it is almost sweet but have never experienced it before today. The mix of red and green romaine with a little arugula had that nice vegetably sweetness similar to really fresh carrots and no hint of bitterness that so quickly creeps into greens after they are picked.

The hard cheese was a mild Parmesean shaved into long, thick, crumbly ribbons. The croutons were small nuggets of buttery baguette and not so large that they overpower the salad and become the focus. These were small enough to mix with the rest of the salad and hide under the lettuce until the surprise of discovering them in your mouth.

And, atop the salad was the crown of any true Caesar - anchovies. People get weird about anchovies, mostly because so often they are an oily, salty affair that dominates whatever dish they have been added to. The anchovies on this salad were oily, but creamy and very lightly salted so that they actually tasted like fish. I haven't had anchovies like this since I visited Milan. My only issue is that there weren't more of them.

The dressing was presented on the side, but I used it all anyway. Eggy, cheesey, creamy, and gently peppered, it was the perfect complement to the rest of the salad.

Salad Perfection

Which brings me now to the Vegetable Minestrone. I did not photograph the soup as it did not look like much. Turns out, it did not taste like much, either. I'm reluctant to criticize anything that emerges from the TenTen kitchen as they really are the best thing going on in Harbor East. From the crab cake to the Cobb salad, everything I've ordered has been so far above and beyond anything else in the area, I want to say only good things about them. They are genuinely making an effort to produce good, well-crafted meals.

Which is why the minestrone was such a disappointment. It had all the component parts - white beans, a little orzo pasta, and a variety of vegetables. What it didn't have was a distinct theme. The vegetables were a mix of fresh bell peppers, grated carrots and sad, slippery mushrooms with stewed tomatoes that felt and tasted canned. The flavor of the broth was a little off as well, tasting not of hearty Italian herbs, but with the dreaded soapy taste of ill-used cilantro. A single blemish on an otherwise exemplar kitchen.