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Tapping into Tapas

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The Zaatar spiced short ribs are served with crispy yucca and mojo verde.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonVinoteca 902
902 N. Market St., Wilmington 575-9244
vinoteca902.com

Prices
Shared plates and tapas: $6-$12
Entrées: $9-$18

Recommended Dishes
Lobster empanadas, tabbouleh salad, risotto croquettes

 

 

It was an icy afternoon in downtown Wilmington when the vice president reported for jury duty. With Joe Biden at the county courthouse, adjacent Market Street was buzzing with chaos. Cop cars and roving, tinted SUVs cruised the perimeter while Secret Service goons with dark shades and earpieces prowled the sidewalks.

I was hunching over a delicious Levantine tabbouleh salad inside the relatively serene Vinoteca 902. Gazing at the madness through the window I wondered silently if goons get lunch breaks.

The atmosphere was more still inside Vinoteca. It was a quiet first winter here, one that also afforded the restaurant’s star chef and owner, Julio Lazzarini, time for reflection.

Executive Chef Julio Lazzarini (foreground) and chef de cuisine Jamie Campbell get things started in the kitchen.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonLazzarini, you might recall, landed a powerful jolt to the growth and energy of Wilmington’s Market Street renaissance when he opened Orillas Tapas in 2008. The CIA grad brought something new to a town thought to be set in its conservative ways. Nearly three years on, Orillas has not only stuck around, it’s galvanized a tapas revolution and made Lazzarini into a bona fide celebrity chef. He’s since appeared on the Food Network, at Meals from the Masters and the National Restaurant Association’s annual gala.

But with Vinoteca, the chef’s second Market Street restaurant in three years, Lazzarini faces a new challenge. Mid-winter, it seemed he was still figuring things out.

This spot for whatever reason has wreaked havoc on downtown restaurateurs. Its two previous tenants, The Exchange and The National, failed to take root. Vinoteca’s harsh winter forced a menu facelift in January, when Lazzarini wisely moved away from heavy, bistro-inspired dishes in favor of more tapas, mezze courses and flatbreads.

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I think it was a wise adjustment. Even on paper, Lazzarini’s new menu seemed like a more natural extension of his considerable talents. Gone were greasy and forgettable dishes like plantain-crusted sea bass, and deep-fried and fishy scallops Milanese. And in their place sprang dishes rife with brightness and simplicity.

From the briny pop of delicate carpaccio laminado—citrus-treated cured Spanish cod—to humble, skewered chicken pintxos, the new menu exhibited greater focus and refined flavors. Elsewhere, warm Medjool dates oozed Gorgonzola cheese from the cracks of a crispy prosciutto sheath.

Manager/Sommelier Iatagan Rocha pours a world-class wine.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonLazzarini’s empanadas belong on billboards. His Orillas pork and chicken varieties were star makers, and perhaps the best-tasting dish on Vinoteca’s old menu were his indulgent and gently baked squid ink and lobster empanadas.

A Catalonian version of empanadas displaced those, but the results were just as good. Molten goat cheese and spinach, studded with golden raisins, ran from the crisp turnover shells and into creamy citrus aioli.

Adios went leaden osso bucco and its ilk, and in came more flatbreads, meats and cheeses. (The new menu scratched the entrée lineup to three.) Lazzarini tackles the Cuban sandwich with such ease. The sweet crunch of housemade pickles emerges from a palette of perfectly blended flavors that include tender roasted pork, pancetta, Swiss cheese, mustard, and mojo sauce.

While some pre-revamp dishes required a trip back to the drawing board, the restaurant initially had two very strong legs to fall back on: its wine program and its polished decor.

The sprawling dining room space at the foot of The Residences at Rodney Square is a neat space—and large—with soaring, exposed ceilings and ductwork. Vinoteca, thanks to some handy and well-focused design, makes the most of its setting. Much like Orillas’, the dining room is modern and cozy, adorned with upcycled wine bottle wall-mounts and steampunk metal decorations. Textured salmon-colored walls create the space between chandeliers and cushy banquette seating.

In Iatagan Rocha, the ’Teca has a brilliant manager and sommelier on its roster. On several nights, he guided us through a thicket of Spanish wines toward Ramón Bilbao’s woodsy Limited Edition Tempranillo Rioja, and Guelbenzu Azul, an elegant blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Spotting me with the lemony white fish, he rushed over a glass of Moscato d’Asti.

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Server Jamie Lynn Murray delivers the mini-chocolate mousse cake with truffles. Photograph by Thom ThompsonThe fact remains that less-than-thrilling food defined my first few visits to Vinoteca, though there were some definite highlights. Risotto croquettes and grit cakes, though essentially clones, were nicely crisp spheres with gooey centers. The croquettes, in particular, burst forth with flavor, combining creamy rice with smoked ham and mozzarella.

A shade of sweetness emerged from a creamy bowl of mushroom-and-asparagus soup, one of the better starters I ordered, and adobo-rubbed chicken scored with crisp skin, and outstanding sweet potato risotto.

The chef’s new portmanteau—Medilatino—aptly describes his fusion cuisine, but Lazzarini, during his first menu run, was not firing very much beyond ordinary. Which, considering Lazzarini’s clout as the young, envelope-pushing visionary, was disappointing.

Though the ’Teca’s menu sounded very exotic and alluring (to the tune of West African fufu, and Peruvian aji amarillo), it lacked balance and felt stymied by too many crusted, coated, breaded and fried dishes.

His amended menu, I’m happy to say, was a welcome return to form. I also appreciated how he chose not to fiddle with lunch selections, which, despite scant crowds during my lunch visits, were quite good. The tabbouleh salad hit all of its marks with sweet, homemade Greek yogurt mingling with baby spinach and roasted red peppers and feta cheese.

And the Vinoteca sliders—a dynamic duo of chorizo and lamb morsels on brioche buns—erupted with flavor. Even a dab of guava-sweetened barbecue sauce for dipping matchstick fries impressed.

Vinoteca represents an outstanding opportunity. Lazzarini proved with Orillas that LoMa can support upscale ethnic dining. Another victory, despite a few stumbles out of the gate, is attainable.

 

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