Popular kid on the block 

Wisteria comes of age with well-conceived, Southern-tinged cuisine

To take the precarious plunge and open your own restaurant is a frightening enough proposition: Statisticians and loan officers love to toss around encouraging phrases like, "Fifty percent of all new businesses don't survive the first five years."

But opening a restaurant the week of 9/11? Lord, have mercy. I imagine Wisteria's executive chef Jason Hill in the days that followed, peering into the former Babette's space that he and his partners had toiled to renovate, surveying a sparsely occupied dining room. There was probably a glint of existential panic in his eyes. There would have been in mine.

It's hard to envision that scene now, though, as a steady stream of diners fills the space to capacity on a recent Sunday night. Folks have gathered two or three deep around the industrial-lite bar placed center stage. The sunlight recedes, and the room, with its sponged, burnt-orange walls, begins to emanate the viscous amber hue that has come to define popular neighborhood restaurants everywhere in America.

The confidence that the popularity imparts has made a positive impact on Wisteria's kitchen.

Major weaknesses of the menu have been resolved since my last visit more than two years ago. I remembered the appetizers, for instance, to be largely uneven. But as I tear into one small plate after another, I'm hard-pressed to find fault. The meaty, not-too-gamy succulence of wild boar and cranberry sausage is intensified by sharp, chunky peach chow-chow. Rich, long-cooked onions in a caramelized onion tart have been partially pureed. It creates a silky texture that plays a nice counterpoint to the buttery crust and the coarse blanket of asiago melted over the top.

Tomatoey crab bisque is rife with flecks of crab. Despite its squiggles of goat cheese créme fraiche (barely scented with the Calvados listed on the menu), it has a rustic integrity reminiscent of my summers on the Eastern shore of Maryland. It tastes unfussy and honest.

Brown turkey figs are a local treat in season right now. They were part of a recent special salad with mixed greens, feta and saba (crushed grape syrup) vinaigrette. No one flavor bullied the others: Peace reigned on the plate.

There's something about the freedom of cooking New American that pushes chefs toward too many sweet notes. Thankfully, that tendency has mellowed here, though you might not think it to read the description of the half-duck entree. Roasted bananas, golden raisins, dried cranberries and a vanilla-bean brown butter sauce all conspire to make this dish cloying. Astonishingly, they do not succeed. The tawny duck has been smoked, and its unctuous qualities temper the fruits into a satisfying complexity.

Pork tenderloin, alas, does not possess the same strength of character. The gossamer slices of pork disappear into a crest of sweet potatoes. An apple, walnut and onion relish ensures you won't need dessert.

And if you're not into sweetened starters, I need not even warn you to avoid calamari drizzled with apricot sauce and wasabi créme fraiche. But this dish has been on the menu since day one, so I know somebody's gotta be gobbling it up.

There's nothing sweet about the sharp cheddar macaroni and cheese flecked with braised greens that accompanies the beef tenderloin. Greens in mac-n-cheese? It's brilliant. The greens are chopped up finely, so their texture doesn't seem funky with the pasta (it seems funny to call mac-n-cheese pasta, doesn't it? Mac-n-cheese isn't pasta, it's ... mac-n-cheese!). I could eat a vat of this stuff. The beef, while competently grilled and juicy, takes second fiddle status on this particular dish.

Skate wing also goes Southern with a pairing of stone-ground grits. It's an unlikely combination that works: The creamy grits meld with the crablike skate, and a lemon brown-butter sauce deftly cuts the richness. My only complaint with this dish is the roasted asparagus arranged on top. I mourn the passing of asparagus as a truly seasonal vegetable. Roasted tomatoes would work equally as well and would more eloquently reflect the 90-degree weather outside.

Dessert remains the one thing about Wisteria's menu that doesn't move me to praise. An apple pie with a soggy crust. A crumble full of vivid summer fruit with a topping too heavy from oatmeal. And did I detect a heavy hand of Malibu rum in a recent special of coconut cream pie?

I'll sit back and sip another glass of vino instead. It's obvious someone here loves the grape -- the wine list is rangy and sassy, with a great selection by the glass. Try the Sokol Blosser Evolution #9, a white blend from Oregon, or the Angels Share Shiraz from Australia. If in doubt, ask your server: This bunch seems to know what they're doing.

In fact, I'll be back to Wisteria soon, just for the service. It's the rare restaurant with a staff that is both knowledgeable and sincerely warm (not to mention good-looking). Executive sous chef Walker Brown even emerges from the kitchen and sets plates in front of customers with a boyish smile.

Sometimes servers may stay away a little longer than you'd like. They might bring a requested glass of wine when you're almost finished with your entree, or delay in dropping off the check when you're chomping at the bit to get home and watch "Six Feet Under."

But, hey, that's the curse of popularity, right?



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