Location: 12017 Perry Highway, Wexford. 724-933-5533. www.dvinewinepa.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 4 p.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight)
Prices: Appetizers, sandwiches and salads $6-14; entrees $16-32
Fare: Italian small plates, contemporary entrees
Atmosphere: Sophisticated but near-raucous
Liquor: Full bar
Like certain people, some restaurants can't decide what they want to be, and so they try to have it all. They aspire to be classy yet cozy, friendly yet formal, with food that's contemporary yet comforting.
Of course, it's not exactly news that when one tries to be all things to all people, one usually ends up being nothing much. But occasionally, one of these incongruous, portmanteau establishments manages to pull it off. Through a combination of effort, ability and some X-factor, the rare restaurant succeeds at providing a clubhouse for locals, a date-night destination for twentysomethings and weekend warriors, and -- most importantly in our book -- a genuinely good meal.
Such a place is d'Vine, located in an upscale strip mall in the far North Hills.
d'Vine is surprisingly urbane for its location. Its spacious interior features a high industrial ceiling painted black, merlot-hued walls and flickering candlelight. In keeping with the "lounge" part of the name, there is a fireplace at the back and several cushy couches, as well as traditional dining tables throughout. Opposite the bar on one wall are a couple of discreet doorways leading to an intimate room of banquettes and another fireplace. A bank of flat-screen TVs located here seemed at odds with the coziness of the semi-private lounge, however. And the remainder of the decor consisted of rock posters, seemingly less an homage to baby-boomer pop culture than a reflection of d'Vine's other life as a music venue, mostly for jazz and singer-songwriter acts, plus semi-regular comedy nights. See what we mean about being all things?
Yet d'Vine seemed to be reaching all people. On a Saturday night, the place was packed with a crowd ranging from a 21st birthday party to a girls' night out to guys at the bar watching sports on the TVs. It certainly didn't make for a quiet date, but our high table in a back corner gave us an out-of-the-way vantage point for people-watching and getting down to business: dinner.
When d'Vine opened a year ago, it styled itself a tapas place. That has changed, but the appetizer section of the menu still distinguishes itself with some pretty serious cuisine, such as zucchini noodles, seared tuna and a risotto du jour. There's an unmistakable Italian flavor to the offerings, but with a deliberately contemporary sensibility. For example, chorizo sneaks into the beans and greens, and prawns with polenta are spiced with Asian flavors.
In a tapas mindset, we ordered mostly from the appetizers, only to discover that they were more substantial than the small plates we were expecting. Our tiny table was soon overwhelmed.
The crispy ricotta gnocchi were deep-fried with breading that obscured the flavor of the dumplings, but the grilled calamari steak, a brilliant reinvention of calamari rings, offered julienned strips of tender squid in a lively red wine "syrup." The beans and greens were spicy, soupy and a bit short on greens, but still robustly flavorful.
We also ordered the aforementioned prawns and polenta. The royal prawns were succulent and plump enough to carry an assertive chili oil, while the polenta cake was mouth-wateringly creamy inside.
With the lone misstep of the gnocchi (which, incidentally, tasted better the next day after the breading absorbed the pesto oil dressing), everything tasted fresh and original. Our favorite touch, repeated in a number of dishes, was a bed of chiffonade-cut fresh basil, enough to act as a mini-salad, which brightened the food without wearying the palate.
After all these starters, we ordered just one salad (warm spinach) and entree (steak au poivre) to share. The salad upped its standing by featuring crisped prosciutto in place of bacon, but its balance was thrown off by too much red onion, cut too large, and dressing whose tang wasn't well distributed. However, all was forgiven when the steak arrived. This was a juicy rib-eye, beautifully grilled and topped with slices of old-fashioned button mushrooms in an up-to-date red-wine reduction that flavored the beef without distracting from it.
Urbanites that we are, we liked the stylish ambience at d'Vine, but it was the quality and creativity of the food that was the winning X-factor for us.