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Thursday, December 4, 2003

Climbing Vines

Posted on Thu, Dec 4, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Shakespeare's Juliet pondered, "What's in a name?" Obviously Juliet wasn't in the restaurant business, because names seem to be of primary concern to those vying for dining dollars.

Because of a lawsuit brought by an out-of-town claimant, Wildfires Bar 'n' Grill in Thornton Park recently changed its name to Wildsides. And just as we were wiping our mouths at Woodstone Grill, we found, because of litigation brought by nearby Stonewood Tavern, the Sand Lake Italian eatery was to be rechristened as Vines Grille.

In an area dominated by high-concept restaurant giants, Vines is surprisingly cozy, an intimate space with probably no more than two dozen tables. Several of them overlook the open kitchen and its large charcoal-fired grill, a rotisserie filled with crispy chickens slowly revolving above it. The former tenant, Stallone's, used the grill and ovens for brick-oven pizza and casual specialties, while Vines goes the more high-end route, offering a full menu of steaks and seafood.

The meal began with an enormous, beautiful platter of roasted mussels ($9.50), the broth spiced with shreds of still-crunchy red pepper. Vines' substitute for pizza is flatbread. My order of the garlic shrimp variety ($9.50) looked wonderful, the thin bread nicely charred from the oven, with spicy tomato sauce and a few well-placed jumbo shrimp atop. But the center of the bread was soggy and limp, impossible to pick up by hand.

No faults could be found in the twin tenderloin entree ($22.50), two succulent and immaculately cooked bacon-wrapped steaks dressed with wine-soaked mushrooms.

The young Vines is a restaurant of appearances, like the flatbread -- beautiful to look at, but not yet past the soggy middle stage.

One of my favorite New York restaurants is a place called Peasant, which features chicken slow-roasted in a charcoal oven, and the sight of those birds at Vines made my mouth water in remembered anticipation. This free-range bird ($16.50) turned out to be a bit dry, even though the deep flavors were perfect. The rice accompaniment listed in the menu was mysteriously replaced by rosemary mashed potatoes; since I had also ordered the mashed potatoes as an a la carte side, I wish the overworked waiter had caught the duplication.

While outgoing and attentive when they got a chance, only two waiters were on that night, and the demand got away from them at times. I think delays in service accounted for a lot of the faults.

This is a good space, and I hope that the potentially great food will get Vines through the opening jitters.

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