Dry in the vineyard

A first trip to Vine, plus a happy rendezvous in Brookhaven

Years ago — actually before I began writing this column, at a time I had decided food shouldn't be taken very seriously — I was up for a job as the dining critic for a national magazine. I was initially offered the job, but at a lunch meeting to discuss details, I made the terrible mistake of not accepting wine with my meal. "I don't drink," I explained to the editor.

The offer was withdrawn the next day. The editor wanted someone who would also write about wine. "We just assumed," she said. I explained that wine makes me crazy — real crazy. "I could drink some wine now and then," I told her, "if you wouldn't mind me moving into the magazine's Dumpster." I was bid a nice life.

I recount the story by way of acknowledging that I am at a disadvantage when visiting a restaurant built around its wine list. The new Vine (1190 N. Highland Ave., 404-892-2393) — with its 150 varieties of wine that inspire special tastings throughout the week and chef's-table dinners in a private "stone cellar" — is such a restaurant. Were I a wine drinker, I'd maybe feel better about Vine.

Vine is located in the space vacated by Tiburon Grille. The owners have given the restaurant a brighter look, lightening the walls to a cream color. They are hung with large paintings of, yes, wine service. There's an incongruous zigzag of tubular lights on the ceiling. The kitchen is open to broad view. There's a black granite bar. It's all well put together, but there's something odd about it. You don't really deduce exactly what until you take a seat on the much more pleasant patio and review the menu.

Then you realize the interior and the menu both feel like products of corporate culture. There's not a quirky, edgy note in the place, and you can't help wondering if you're eating at the prototype of a planned new chain of restaurants. Later research does not dispel the feeling. Executive chef David Maini has spent 20 years working for a cruise line, a Las Vegas venue and two corporate chains. Most recently he was with Bravo, the folks who developed the chain of Brio restaurants.

So the menu is a list of tried-and-true American favorites. You likely won't find anything that offends you, but you're not too likely to find anything that wows you, either. A lump crab cake is, appropriately, at once crisp and almost gooey with a clear flavor. But its four dollops of "wasabi aioli" were as piquant as mayonnaise. Cornmeal-crusted fried oysters are tiny but hot and briny. Both starters immediately introduce one of the restaurant's most glaring problems: the plating. The little oysters sat about a huge pool of the horseradish cream, like baby animals nursing from the ocean. The crab cake's plate was garnished confetti-style with chopped yellow and red peppers, a habit that chefs need to abandon or reserve for children's birthday parties.

My entree, a rack of lamb, was competently grilled with a peach-mint glaze kept mercifully low-key. It was served over mashed sweet potatoes and then utterly buried under a tangle of "Vidalia straws," free-form onion rings. If you're not into onion rings, ask for a jumbo plate on which to discard them. A special of salmon stuffed with crab and served with sauteed baby spinach and "sweet potato straws" was plated better, but nonetheless looked exactly like something you'd be served on a cruise ship. Flavor? Not bad, although the salmon was on the edge of being overcooked.

Desserts include the inevitable flourless chocolate cake, here a bigger-than-usual portion. I'm not blaming Vine in particular, but it's time for this dish to go back on the shelf for a while. I suspect it's already being nestled amid the kale on the Shoney's salad bar. If you have to choose between it and the bread pudding, however, definitely get the cake. The bread pudding is a square submerged in a sauce-filled bowl under aerosolized whipped cream.

We dined on a Monday night when the restaurant offers four varieties of wine by the glass and bottle at half price. On Wednesdays, you can sample a flight of seven to 10 wines for $10. On Sundays, the chef offers a special menu of three dishes paired with wine for only $24.95. Lunch is served weekdays and brunch is served on Sundays.

Jewel in Brookhaven

Zounds! How in hell did I miss Au Rendez-Vous (1328 Windsor Parkway, 404-303-1968) until last week? This French cafe operated by a Vietnamese couple has been open nearly two years. If you, like me, have not visited, you've missed one of the best bangs for the dining buck in town.

Lunch is $8.90 (at dinner, prices rise to $12.90) and includes a hearty entree and your choice of soup or salad. Rose D'Agostino and I chose the bracing mussel soup, full of dill and bits of other herbs, as well as a surprising number of the shellfish.

For my entree, I had cassoulet, an informal version — meaning it wasn't brought to the table in a pan with a crust waiting to be broken. But its generous duck confit, sausage and pork, stewed with white beans in a tomato sauce and then oven-roasted, created a cassoulet far better than the average found in town. Rose had roasted chicken cooked in vegetable broth redolent of herbs and served with sauteed vegetables. The sauce was nearly as dense and flavorful as the cassoulet's.

The butter-drenched desert crepes are infamous here, and Rose picked the house favorite — Nutella with banana. I, however, picked a bowl of St. Rafael ice cream — rum-raisin streaked with chestnut cream.

Perhaps I should warn you that this is an informal spot. Indeed, the dining room rapidly dissolves into a storage area during your walk to the restroom, and service is rather, um, indifferent to the clock. But the food demands that you visit. There's nothing quite like it in our city.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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