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?