Sometimes on "Project Runway," fashion guru Tim Gunn approaches one of the show's designers, and after a dramatic appraisal of his or her garment he says, "You know, I think you need to bring an editing eye to this." I'll admit, reality TV isn't the most reliable of cultural references, but I'm sure you get the idea. Frequently, when people undertake an artistic endeavor, the artistry runs rampant, and the artist is unable to see that none of his ideas are discernible among the clutter.
That's the experience I've had most recently at Vine, the Virginia-Highland restaurant that's changed ownership three times in the past four years. The current owner is Stephen McGuffin, the former chef de cuisine at Virginia-Highland's Dish. He left to work in Nashville, but returned to Atlanta with the intention of purchasing Dish when it went out of business. When that deal fell through, he turned his attention to Vine, and with some family backing, the restaurant became chef-owned.
Vine's always been something of a conundrum – it's a fantastic space, and it sits smack in the middle of Virginia-Highland. Parking is easy, the patio is sprawling, and the local residents live in million-dollar houses. A wine-focused New American bistro seems like the perfect concept for the location. But it's as if the kitchen has a curse on it – the food has never lived up to the setting. I ate at Vine once last year and it was so bad, so poorly executed, I decided not to write about it. Not because I'm squeamish about that kind of thing, but because I figured it would only be a matter of time before someone else took over.
The good news is, now that McGuffin is in place, the food has improved dramatically. The bad news is that there are still problems. While McGuffin clearly has a better grasp on flavor and technique than his predecessors, he could, um, use an editing eye. Or tongue.
In some dishes, it's sweetness that runs amok. An appetizer of curried grilled baby lamb chops is perfectly cooked and crusted in all kinds of mellow, interesting flavors such as chili, lemongrass and coriander. But they lie over a sticky white sauce identified as honeyed yogurt. Plain yogurt would be a much more welcome accompaniment than this stuff, which tastes like cake glaze. Mussels cooked in an overly sweet panang curry were almost too dessert-like to eat.
In other cases, richness overwhelms otherwise simple dishes. Salmon over earthy, cheesy cauliflower gratin needs only the freshness of spinach to strike a perfect balance, but instead of leaving the green leafy vegetable to do its work, McGuffin creates a "spinach and foie gras emulsion." The heavy and somewhat oily emulsion adds to the richness of the salmon and the cheese on the cauliflower, but fails to add any apparent foie gras flavor.
Georgia shrimp over lemon risotto plays a nice tune of acid and base, but pepper, particularly white pepper, toots a little too loudly.
McGuffin's inventive spirit works sometimes. The house-cured prosciutto-crusted halibut was more sauced than crusted – the prosciutto was chopped and made into something almost resembling a ragu and ladled over the fish. But it had a balanced and bright flavor, and the grilled spring onions added just the right amount of vegetal sweetness.
The idea of paring back, of relying on simplicity, plays out beautifully in the peach dumpling dessert, where fresh peaches are wrapped in pie pastry and baked. The straightforward dish doesn't need any adornment. For some reason, the exact opposite tendency takes over in a blackberry cobbler with honey ice cream. The fresh blackberries swathed in pastry are so spiced and gussied up, the result tastes like a walk past the Yankee Candle store. "Like tea," my sister said. "Like potpourri," my friend said. Whatever – not like blackberries.
Vine embodies a dark, drapey California wine-country feel, which hasn't changed much despite the different owners. It could use an update. I hate to say "so 10 years ago," but that's what comes to mind. The wine list suffers from the same malady. The menu, room and list all look to California for inspiration, but all three would do well to take a big step beyond the West Coast. With 400 wines on the list, I'd like to see more variation in origin rather than a few nods toward the Old World in a sea of California wines.
Vine is one of those restaurants that frustrates because it's close to being exactly what the neighborhood needs. With a couple of simple tweaks, it could be the great, casual bistro we all wish we had around the corner. Perhaps the drama of so much change has driven everyone away, because despite the better food and energy new ownership has brought, Vine's been empty every time I've visited. I'd like to see the restaurant reclaim the neighborhood-gem reputation it once had. All it would take is a little patience and faith on the part of the public, and some editing on the part of the chef.
Editor's note: Please read Besha Rodell's explanation of a misleading statement in this review regarding the wine list at Vine, here.
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