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June 1, 2019

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The wine rules and the bistro tantalizes at Grapes Wine Bar in Annapolis

Grapes Wine Bar at Clock Tower Place on Forest Drive in Annapolis seems to follow a rule that few other restaurants observe: less is more. And that makes the difference between an overwhelmed and overstuffed diner and one who leaves the table smiling and satisfied.

Chef Daryl Travers fields a smartly tailored, French accented menu of starters, salads, flatbreads and “complete platters,” along with some nightly specials.

And Travers is a master at beautifully plating portions that encourage customers to reach for the fork with enthusiasm, rather than roll their eyes and wonder how much in the way of next-day leftovers will be carted home.

Choose from the 11 starters and one could easily assemble a good meal. Excellent mussels, classically steamed in white wine and herbs ($13), are on the list as well as cheese and charcuterie selections and more. I’ve had the house-made hummus with toasted pita and fresh vegetables ($7). Its simple ingredients: tahini, good olive oil, lemon juice and garlic add up to a fine opener.

Our recent visit occurred at the end of an uncommonly hot spring evening: lighter eating was definitely in order.

My wife spotted the roasted chicken with bistro frites ($15.50). She ordered it immediately, recalling a warm evening years ago in a street café in Rouen, France.

Lighter eating tonight? That idea evaporated when I saw braised rabbit with fettuccine ($18) was available.

The roasted chicken, crisp-skin the color of mahogany, was moist, tender and full of quality poultry flavor. The mound of superb, house cut French fries was hot and perfectly seasoned. Her Caesar salad ($8) was a tribute to the virtues of very fresh ingredients and classic preparation. C’est si bon!

The salads from Grapes’ kitchen are worth much more than a passing glance. At an earlier meal, the roasted beet salad with cranberry jam, bleu cheese and roasted walnuts ($14) was impressively kicked up with horseradish vinaigrette.

Travers’ braised rabbit, nestled in a rich sauce with pasta and vegetables, was a fine example. The meat was sweet and tender and the braising sauce sleek with wine and herbs. But the vegetables and pasta clearly were added later in the cooking. The result: the flavor of long simmering and bright taste of fresh vegetables. The delicious dish was much lighter than I expected.

The regular dessert offerings number only two: butterscotch pot de crème and a chocolate mousse, plus seasonal specials. Creatures of habit, we shared the silky rich pot de crème ($7).

So Grapes is a tantalizing bistro. But Grapes is a wine bar, isn’t it?

You bet and while a full beverage bar is ready to serve, wine rules. Grapes is the concept of owner Patrick Bouculat, whose Wine Cellars of Annapolis adjoins the bistro. Thus the wine list, plus the changing array of specials, is perhaps the most thoughtful and congenial to the food of any around.

Grapes is, thankfully, a relatively small establishment. Its long bar attracts diners as well as drinkers and the limited number of tables translates to savvy, attentive service. Parking is plentiful.

There are only a handful of top quality restaurants along Forest Drive, despite all of the growth in that area. Grapes and one or two others are most welcome sanctuaries from the crowded downtown Annapolis scene.

If you go

WHAT: Grapes Wine Bar

WHERE: 1410 Forest Dr., Annapolis (Clock Tower Place)

PHONE: 410-571-5378

WEBSITE: grapeswinebarannapolis.com

HOURS: Mon. – Thurs.: 5-9 p.m. Fri.: 4-10 p.m. Sat.: 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m. Closed Sunday

CHEF: Daryl Travers

SMALL PLATES AND SALADS: $5 – $18

FLATBREADS & COMPLETE PLATES: $10-$19

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

RESERVATIONS: Not accepted

ACCESSIBILITY: Yes