Restaurant Review - Vinocity (2003)

When it comes to frugality, you gotta pick your battles. Me? I'll happily drop $18 for a luscious glass of Cabernet, but I have an innate grouchiness when it comes to paying for parking. I'd rather walk five blocks than pay five bucks to the guy waving me into his lot with an orange flag. So I know I can depend on a nice brisk stroll whenever I want to visit one of the restaurants around Peachtree Walk. Competition for free parking is downright vicious there.

Peachtree Walk, a tree-lined strip sandwiched between 12th and 13th, anchors a stretch of small businesses that seems an oddly quiet reprieve from the rest of Midtown. Winds of change stirred by Big Business — Georgia Tech's new, intensely lit Technology Square in one direction, the gargantuan Atlantic Station construction site in the other — blow mightily nearby. Date-friendly Pasta da Pulcinella and perky, singles-packed Cosmopolitan Lounge pioneered the area.

Vinocity, open for a year this month, occupies a Victorian house diagonal to Cosmopolitan that was previously inhabited by the Atlanta Theosophical Society. As you can glean from the name, wine plays an important role in this restaurant's raison d'etre. The first floor of the house has been turned into a wine bar with a lounge/coffeehouse feel to it. Fuzzy pea-green and muted red chairs, light fixtures and knickknacks scream "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"-approved stores like Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn and Storehouse. (Speaking of which, the crowd here is largely straight. The gay fellas tend to hang out up the street at Front Page News).

Traipse up stairs covered in groovy, swirly carpet and you find yourself in a comfy dining room with deep blue walls and slanted roofs. Local artwork covers the walls. There's a small patio off to the side that's often occupied to capacity, though I prefer to hide in the air conditioning.

You can certainly find longer or more authoritative wine selections in town, but this list is a lot of fun. The owners wisely invested in a Cruvinet preservation system that extends the life of opened bottles of wine for up to six weeks, so you've got 70 wines to choose by the glass or bottle. My drinking posse helped me tackle quite a chunk of this list, and there are some goodies on here. We found wines with notes of overripe banana (2000 Terra Rouge Viognier) and bacon (2000 Somberbosch Pinotage); wines that made us scratch our heads and don our pretentious, inquisitive expressions (1999 Groth Cabarnet and 2001 Shea Chardonnay); and wines that felt easy like Sunday morning (2000 Kilikanoon "Siblings," a Shiraz/ Grenache blend).

I do, however, have two complaints. The first is that the whites are served frigid, which makes the nuances of white wine nearly impossible to appreciate. We sat at our table rubbing our glasses to warm them up like Boy Scouts trying to start a fire with sticks. They also seem to run out of selections frequently. There were at least four wines we asked for that were unavailable during my visits.

Interestingly, that latter quibble spills into the food menu as well. The crisped applewood smoked bacon, for example, that sounded so yummy in a salad of butter lettuce, caramelized onions and Australian blue cheese was conspicuously absent. When we asked our server about it, she went back to the kitchen and was told they ran out of bacon. (In all fairness, though, the manager knocked $2 off the salad.) On another night, I ordered a sauteed soft shell crab that was missing its saffron aioli. What gives? Maybe the servers should go through a list of "86ed" stuff after reciting the specials of the evening.

It's evident that chef Brian Barfield is out to wow his diners with culinary prowess. The ingredient lists are long and the choices span the breadth of New American cuisine. As is often the case with these types of menus, though, the simplest dishes are typically the best (and are also the ones that most flatter the wine). Mussels are tender from precisely timed cooking and their buttery garlic-white wine sauce is worthy of slurping with a spoon. A New York strip is seductive without flashiness, adorned elementally with crispy fingerling potatoes, toothsome carrots and a drizzle of reduction sauce.

When things go awry, it ain't pretty. Goat cheese tart is a puff pastry disaster — I couldn't find any cheese buried in the overbrowned pastry. Duck breast and duck leg confit with apple fennel risotto, sauteed Granny Smith apples and citrus demi-glace is as all over the place as it sounds. Bruschetta with tomatoes, basil, shitake mushrooms, fontina cheese and truffle oil remind me of college cooking experiments when "gourmet" equaled "pile on the ingredients." Two toppings would suffice.

Desserts are made off-premises, so don't bother. Opt instead for one of two cheese plates. Designed to be consumed with either red or white wines (and perfect for a nibble if you're sipping at the bar), it's also a lovely way to wind down the meal as you swirl the last of your Barbera or romance a glass of 10-year-old port. Yep, the food can be uneven, but for me it all comes back to the vino. And believe me, if you enjoy wine as much as I do, you'll need that sobering five-block walk back to your free parking spot after a couple hours of imbibing.