Posted On: 03/01/2008
On a Friday morning, laptop in hand, I visited Off the Vine – the new South City contemporary wine bistro – for coffee, pastries and Wi-Fi. But for executive chef Andy White and another cook, the place was empty. White explained that during the first month of operation exactly six people came in, so he nixed the early breakfast hours. A smart move, given that a new restaurant can’t be all things to all diners.
With White at the stove, a lack of patrons certainly isn’t a problem during lunch and dinner, especially on weekends, when the two-month-old bistro fills up quickly. Diners are flocking to Off the Vine, hungry for White’s fanciful yet solidly Midwestern cooking (he is, after all, a South City boy), a style they followed from Café Campagnard to Harvest to, most recently, Balaban’s. He’s a skilled facilitator, introducing diverse ingredients to each other and making sure they work in harmony. Since this is winter, expect to see a menu full of beef, lamb, pork, chicken and seafood bolstered with a full array of comforting, seasonal sides (though the lack of even one vegetarian entrée is a big oversight).
An off-the-menu speckled sea trout was a good example. The coastal gamefish was pan roasted, swathed with a celery root velouté and set atop crispy celery-root hush puppies. The duck confit was just as wintry, with almost perfect results. Slow-roasted in its own fat, the duck was fall-off-the-bone tender with a hint of spice (cinnamon?) and served with a substantial herbed bread pudding. While the blood orange vinaigrette added punch and the celery gratinée provided texture, the bread pudding was more stuffing-like than pudding-like, and too dry.
Vegetarian comment aside, the kitchen works wonders with meat. If the grilled flat-iron steak – charred on the outside, juicy pink on the inside – was rich and satisfying, the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin was transcendent. The former was plated on a bed of “melted” spinach and came with a towering Fontina cheese-potato casserole, while cider-braised cabbage and apple fritters accompanied that beautiful portion of Iowa-raised pork. An appetizer of braised boneless short rib, served with risotto and olives in a pool of dark, rustic-tasting sauce, was dense and chewy, the olives providing a deliciously sharp contrast to the meat’s richness.
Soups and salads offer new takes on traditional fare. While the butternut squash soup – laced with lemon crema and toasted cinnamon oil – was the best I’ve had in ages, the hearty white bean soup lacked proper salting. A salad of roasted beets, pine nuts, crispy artichoke hearts and a slathering of creamy goat cheese further enhanced the season.
Zito’s, Blue Water Grill and La Veranda all occupied the little building with the cramped parking lot at one time or another. Managing partners John McDonald (of Nick’s Pub) and Travis Thompson spearheaded the interior’s transformation. Awash in warm amber and bronze tones with a fireplace flickering in the center of the dining room and votive candles glowing from the wall sconces, the place is so damn cozy that an overstuffed couch seems fitting as you nosh on a roasted apple flatbread appetizer, entranced by its salty, sweet creaminess. Odd for a new restaurant of this caliber, though, to allow smoking in the small bar area, which is really more of a holding station for waiting diners.
True to the bistro’s name, wine director Chuck Abramson is working with a list as innovative as White’s menu, with about 90 bottles, including many half-bottles, a great way to sample different wines. Bottle markup is 100 percent, a bit below the average restaurant markup, with good values such as Ten Mile Red and Newton Claret. Equally smart is the wine-by-the-glass option of 3-ounce or 6-ounce pours, making it easier to pair different wines with each course.
Chef White makes nearly everything in-house: rolls, pickled vegetables (too tart) and desserts (roasted banana-Nutella crêpe anyone?). Even the fries are hand-cut. Too bad we were served store-bought frozen fries when the kitchen came up short a few potatoes. It happens all the time in restaurants and most diners understand – if they are informed at the time. We were told about the substitution only after we questioned our server about the commercial spuds on our plates. Being told we weren’t supposed to notice the switch didn’t help.
While sipping a cup of Kaldi’s coffee, munching on big house-made muffin and checking e-mail would have been nice on that cold Friday morning, there are other delights to explore from White’s kitchen; just wait until the season changes.
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