Red Red Wine is a big big hit in Annapolis.
On a chilly winter night, the new storefront joint on Main Street was packed with well-dressed groups dining at tables and an overflow crowd gathered around the long bar in the back. At peak hours in Red Red Wine, there's a tumult of voices, laughter and music that sounds cosmopolitan and even a bit sexy.
The owners set out to create this atmosphere, one they hope will evoke the bruised beauty and faded romance of New Orleans. They call it "eclectic," "Bohemian" and "funky." That sounds like trouble —"eclectic" usually means "no one here can make decisions," and "Bohemian" often translates as "prepare for bad service." As for "funky," don't get me started. But with a deft use of red velvet, music and candlelight, Red Red Wine has pulled it off. It really is a swell-looking place.
Owners Lisa and Brian Bolter are former Baltimore residents who now make Annapolis home. His name may ring a bell — formerly with WBAL-TV in Baltimore, Bolter is now the principal anchorman for WTTG in Washington. A good-looking, wine-adoring couple, the Bolters wanted a stylish but not snobby place for Annapolitans like themselves to enjoy wine in, and they built it. And they've also attracted a staff of seasoned servers and bartenders to work with them.
Red Red Wine feels like it comes from the heart. It just seems to beat faster for wine and atmosphere than it does for food. Though you may leave Red Red Wine uncertain about the Bolters' devotion to creative cuisine, you'll have no trouble seeing how much they value uplifting aesthetics and good wine, and sometimes both.
The Bolters are ardent about making wine friendly and accessible. They've arranged 40-plus wines by the glass into easily grasped categories of bold, sweet, dry and bright, and created wine flights with amusing names like "Three Little Chards" and "Baby Got Blanc." Those flights are delivered in a cunning contraption, a three-glass holder that gently releases glasses just where the waiter wants them to go. Along the wall from the front door to bar, wine bottles are displayed on racks from floor to ceiling. A $10 corkage fee is levied at the table for bottles purchased here — not a bad deal.
A passion for sharing great food is harder to see. Impersonal and tentative, the menu feels as if it was swapped in from another, much less interesting establishment.
It's a compact menu, divided up into starters, personal pizzas, panini and a handful of "main show" entrees. A few dishes sound like they belong in a posh space like Red Red Wine, but the balance of the menu is lukewarm — tried-and-true fare like shrimp Creole, crab cakes and bistro steak.
The most exotic panini filling is basil; the edgiest pizza topping is goat cheese. Side dishes are red-skin potatoes, a garden salad, a pasta salad and the seasonal vegetable of the day, which turned out to be asparagus.
This menu would be OK elsewhere, but it feels wrong here, like pandering. The space deserves more creative offerings, and so do diners.
Once you accept that a certain bar has been lowered, you can make a go of it.
A few of the appetizers are worth a try. Ruby-red piquillo peppers stuffed with feta cheese and tostada shells filled with crab meat, avocado and cilantro are both attractively presented and refreshing, if a little flat. Shared as an appetizer, a personal pizza with crab and shrimp wants more garlic and its crust is underdone.
The crab cake is just plain fantastic, one of the best I've come across. Simply seasoned, and free of fussy ingredients or golf-ball lumps, it's a delivery system for real Maryland crab meat.
Other entrees come across as catering options. These include a sauteed chicken breast in a Chablis mushroom sauce, shrimp Creole served over white rice and a teres major steak with a red-wine demi-glace. The steak, beefy and tender, was the best of these. The chicken and shrimp dishes were decently prepared but uninteresting.
The most effective part of the meal was dessert. Red Red Wine offers Berger cookies with ice cream and specialty versions — red velvet and peanut butter— of the classic Smith Island cake.
Red Red Wine might not have a destination-spot menu, but it's right at home in Annapolis — an upbeat and polished place to gather with friends. A more coherent wine list would help. The bulky wine book now is much too much: Baroquely written and ornately designed, it's generous to a fault with graphics and anecdotes, and impossible to look at for more than a few seconds.
Similarly, it was only when we were leaving that we found out that Red Red Wine even had a cheese program. The one-page menu doesn't mention cheeses, and if we were handed a separate cheese menu, we lost it in the shuffle.
Those are easy fixes. Changing the food will take a change of heart. Red Red Wine, it's up to you.
Red Red Wine
Where: 189 Main St., Annapolis
Contact: 410-990-1144, redredwinebar.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$13; entrees, $18-$27
[Key: Outstanding: **** ; Good: ***; Fair or Uneven: **; Poor: *]
An earlier online version of this article contained inaccuracies about the decor and ingredients. The Baltimore Sun regrets these errors.