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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wine is fine

Posted By on Wed, Jul 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

"Tastes" and tapas: if you like the concept of mini-portions — especially Spanish ones like olives, cheese and chorizo — then it makes perfect sense to pair your nibbles with 2-ounce portions of a slew of wines. If you can keep your wits about you well enough to notice which goes well with which, you'll feel accomplished and prepared for your next outing. And if you can do it all outside on a terrace on a summer evening, there is nothing to keep you from bliss.

Opened in December 2006, Grape Expectations is designed not for the connoisseur (and how big a market would that be?) but for those who want to have fun playing around with wine. The best way is to order a succession of "tastes," and if you order one of the house "flights" — three tastes at once — it will come with a title (e.g., Positively Pinot), labels on each glass, and fulsome descriptions of each wine. This is cause for more merriment — can you sense the asphalt aroma? The forest floor?

Owner Lisa O'Donnell explains on her website that she's no sommelier yet (she didn't write the wine descriptions) but has had a great time picking out 100 bottles, 50 of them for sale by the glass. Customers can take home any bottle retail as well, or an unfinished bottle from the table.

Though I recommend the tastes and the flights, it's worth noticing the price structure, which appears quite random. Sometimes a 6-ounce glass costs exactly three times a 2-ounce taste, sometimes more, sometimes less. Of course, whether a $5 taste (I felt obliged to try one named Slaughterhouse) is twice as good as a $2.50 taste is entirely up to you. For the record, of the sampling my party tried, some liked Bad Boy from the Napa Valley and I chose Terra Noble, from Chile, no asphalt apparent.

Chef Nina Scott does a skillful job with the mostly Italian and Spanish menu, where prices are surprisingly low (and not all dishes, admittedly, require cooking). Gazpacho, for example, is left chunky and well-spiced, served in a fancy jelly jar. The $13 Cutting Board is laden with salami, heavenly prosciutto, chorizo, olives, roasted peppers and cheeses. The cheese list is not adventurous but portions are generous, served with garlic-buttered rounds of toasted baguette. Panini (portobello-Asiago-tomato-basil or chicken-goat cheese-roasted red pepper-arugula) are served with a delightful dollop of roasted red pepper pesto.

My party loved the Asian salad, which paired rare spiced tuna with sesame vinaigrette. An arugula salad loaded with what sounds like too much — chicken, Gouda, candied walnuts, onions and strawberries — was good but would have been better with sharp grown-up arugula rather than the mild baby leaves. Individual pizzas are sizable, but in both the pear-Gorgonzola-walnut and the fancy mushrooms with goat cheese, what we mostly tasted was the cheese.

Frankly, the nosh I enjoyed as much as anything was a simple dish of marinated olives, niçoise, picholine and Moroccan; besides cheese, there's nothing that goes better with wine. And though, like the Asian salad, it's not intuitively wine-friendly, the large chunk of house-smoked salmon was mild but delectable, and well accompanied by red onion, capers and mustard sauce.

Also possible are four bruschettas, calamari, empanadas and marinated kebabs of beef or shrimp.

For dessert, I cannot say enough about the chef's two crème brûlèes. Both the chocolate and the regular are just the right combination of crackliness, barely burnt flavor and creamy insides that a brûlèe should be. And when you add raspberries to the chocolate, or a nut topping to the vanilla — there you have bliss multiplied by bliss.

There are, yes, some flies in the ointment at Grape Expectations. Plymouth, it must be said, is almost too cute to bear. Within eyesight of Grape Expectations are a Hallmark store, the Basket Kreations Gift Shoppe and the Three Dog Bakery — a bakery for dogs. If that's weird, consider the fact that there is another dog bakery around the corner. The restaurant's music, a Sirius radio station called Spectrum, detracts noticeably from the experience; allow no pauses in your conversation.

That said, I'd still go back. An upcoming Southern Boil Wine Tasting Dinner is Aug. 19 — shrimp, andouille sausage, potatoes and corn with appropriate vintages — for an affordable $35.

Trivia nugget: O'Donnell's mother-in-law is Olive Chung, who owned the venerable Chung's restaurant in the Cass Corridor back in the days when Chinese was nearly the only ethnic dining experience you could find. I give my word that Chung's and Grape Expectations have nothing in common.


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