An e-mail from a friend recapping a recent dinner we shared at Vinalia: "Fun last night despite the service and dirty dishes and lack of napkins and inability to hear anything and cold hot chocolate and, well, everything but the company." I wouldn't have been quite so harsh. It was a busy, pre-Christmas night. The bar was packed and the private dining rooms on either side were full, as well as the main dining room of this Downtown Crossing restaurant, close by the retail and financial districts. The staff of Vinalia, which opened in October, seemed caught off guard by the crush, understaffed, and a little confused. Yes, we had no napkins until we flagged someone down. One of us lacked a menu, and all the menu covers were torn.
When I mentioned that we planned to order a bottle of wine, the waitress asked for the wine menu and carried it off to another table, returning it only when we flagged her down again. And the wine glasses were decidedly smudged. But as anyone who eats out knows, there are sometimes nights like this.
Concept is high at Vinalia, with its bar area all in underlit blue that makes glasses seem to float. The dining room is more understated with the lines of high-ceilinged room and dark wood accents of the floor and some paneling carrying the decor. It is impossible to converse without yelling when the room is crowded, but at quieter times, the place seems almost serene.
Vinalia is based on what seems like an odd premise -- an emphasis on wines that doesn't match the downscaled food. The owner Ed Costa, formerly the food and beverage manager of the Boston Harbor Hotel, has used his encyclopedic wine knowledge to offer 40 wines by the glass and four pages of wines by the bottle, including many small vineyard selections from California and elsewhere. The price range is impressive, and the selection ever-changing, depending on availability and price.
The food, in contrast, stays in the moderate price range with most of the entrees around $16 and nothing more than $20. Chef Justin Villa, who previously was sous chef for Daniel Bruce at Meritage, creates a wide range of dishes, from wood-grilled pizzas to plum-glazed pork loin to veal picatta. Although many of the dishes are fine, others are so-so.
Its downtown location, previously Dakota's, almost guarantees a lunch trade while other places are shuttered until evening. Vinalia offers the same reasonable price points. But seared tuna in a salad hardly tastes like tuna at all, and the fried onion slivers on top could have been out of a can. A grilled chicken sandwich tastes as though it was picked up at a fast-food eatery.
The dinner fare luckily ups the ante. A salad of Jonah crab, fennel, and watercress features a generous amount of crab with just enough vinaigrette to give it sparkle, and watercress past its prime. Again tuna tartare lacked much flavor, and the spears of wontons that decorated the plate were stale.
Caramelized sea scallops are pleasant nuggets in a slightly syrupy pear-butter sauce. And Atlantic salmon over Himalayan red rice is well seared at the edges and moist in the center. However, roast sirloin is a flat and slightly stringy piece of beef overwhelmed by its crust of onions. Granted at $18, one wouldn't expect the highest level of steak-house prime, but at least it could have been snatched from the flames a little earlier to cut down on the dryness.
The wood-grilled barbecued chicken breast turns out to be the surprise. Ordered because it sounded so unlike the other hotel-like preparations, usually wine and butter sauces, the chicken -- with some dark meat attached -- is moist and flavorful. The barbecue sauce is tangy and dark, and the herb-roasted potatoes appealingly soak up the extra sauce.
Desserts sound fancy, but after tasting an apple strudel and a pear mousse, all that I could think of is how much they looked and tasted alike.
In the end, though, the pride of place on the menu goes to the pizzas. A pesto, black olive, eggplant, and pinenut version shows off a thin crust and just right amount of topping, and another of wild mushrooms, thyme, and beautifully caramelized onions is a lovely foil to a glass of Groth Sauvignon blanc. Which brings up the funny food-wine juxtaposition: If the pizzas are the stars on the food columns, should they be matched to the stars in the wine? How about the pesto and eggplant pizza ($11) matched to the Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($49)? It could be a trend: Save on the food and splurge on the wine.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
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