From snooty sommeliers to Paul Giametti's character in Sideways, wine geeks are subjected to some overblown stereotypes. But if we are quick to mock those with a passion for swirling and sniffing, maybe it's only a defense mechanism. Most of us remember the intimidation we felt the first time we opened a wine list. Even if we eventually got comfortable pronouncing things like "Chassagne Montrachet," chances are we still have some feelings of inadequacy when it comes to wine.
These were feelings I prepared to confront when I agreed to team up with CityBeat's new wine columnist, Michael Schiaparelli, to visit the Vineyard Cafe and its sister establishment, the Vineyard Wine Room, located just two doors down.
A fresh transplant from New Jersey, Michael notices things I take for granted about dining in Cincinnati, such as the fact that people here drink soda ("pop," I correct him) with nice meals. Michael is enthusiastic about wine and its capacity to enhance food.
The Vineyard divides its attention equally between food and wine. We thought our review should, too, so you'll find Michael's perspective below.
Walking inside, the dining room -- elegantly casual, with dark wood, white tablecloths and plenty of window seating -- is subdued, unsurprising for a stormy Wednesday night. The Mediterranean-based menu includes fish, meat and pasta dishes, with a few Asian and fusion choices like Thai tacos.
The extensive wine list offers more than 40 glass-pours, including many unusual ones. The servers seem to have a good grip on the wines -- I don't get the bullshit-if-you-don't-know-the-answer vibe from ours at all.
We select two appetizers and two entrées, with one glass of wine for each. Mindful of our budget, we opt to skip salads, although the Pine Nut Crusted Goat Cheese Salad ($9.75) I've had before is excellent
We start with Seared Sea Scallops ($10.95) accompanied by warm spinach, polenta and carrot-vanilla "reduction" (a little runny for reduction -- more like a "jus"). Though some of the individual flavors are lost when I manage to get everything on my fork at once, the overall effect is subtle and complex. Our wine selection is Mcon Lugny Les Charmes ($9), a crisp, versatile white Burgundy.
Alongside the scallops, we enjoy the classic combination of Prosciutto with Caramelized Pears ($6.95). I'm surprised by Michael's wine pairing of Condesa de Leganza Crianza ($9). I would have thought to order something white.
But the unconventional combination is exciting. The tempranillo's dark fruit and rustic characteristics jump right into the dynamic interplay of sweet and salty in the food.
For entrées, we try Roasted Salmon ($19.95) and New Zealand Venison ($19.95). While nicely cooked, the salmon entrée suffers from over-fusion identity crisis. The dish's most noticeable prop is a dense block of phyllo pastry. Garlicky spinach and creme fraiche atop and below must be meant to evoke spanakopita, but the phyllo isn't actually wrapped around anything. Also present are nori strips, crabmeat and caviar. Hill of Content Pinot Noir ($11) is the repose from this dish's analysis.
Our venison special -- which will appear on new Executive Chef Isaac Brown's revised version of the menu -- is better conceived. Rosemary mashed potatoes and rich chocolate demiglaze have such rich depth of flavor that we forgive that the venison itself is slightly overcooked for so lean a meat. Chocolate notes in Rutherglen Red ($9) provide a perfect accent.
For dessert, we share an adventurous Wine-Tasting Creme Brulée trio ($8.95). Our server isn't sure which are marsala, port and cabernet-rose flavored. We aren't either, as vanilla is predominant in all. Nevertheless, the brulées are creamy and delicious.
Assessing the value of our meal ($140, including tip), I can't help but feel that while our experience contained no unforgivable flaws, food and service could be more polished for these prices. The hostess stops by our table once with bread (one slice apiece), but no one returns to offer more.
When our entrées arrive, Michael has to wave someone over to request a knife. After we've finished, it's several minutes before plates are cleared and several more before our server tells us about desserts. The waitstaff is friendly and seems to function as a team, but they need to pay more attention to details.
Along with owner Elliot Jablonsky, Chef Brown is toying with the idea of offering more small plates, something I think would increase the restaurant's appeal and its value.
As for my own inhibitions about wine, well, they dissolve after the first glass. And by the second, I'm sharing my own wine savvy with the critic, telling Michael, "I've found a lot of good Riojas with bright orange labels lately." He raises his eyebrows. ©
Go: 2653 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday and noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Spanakopita, salads, porcini mushroom ricotta ravioli and several seafood options
Accessibility: Fully accessible