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On the Vine in Ballantyne 

A new restaurant category pushes into the suburbs

Not all comebacks fly. Michael Jordan's stint with the Wizards and Brett Favre with the Vikings prove this to be true. But we always root for the comeback and redemption: How many tried to get tickets into Time Warner Cable Arena to hear former President Bill Clinton's speech during the DNC?

Real estate, too, tempts many restaurateurs with the possibility of rejuvenation and success. So it is exciting when a space plagued with several failed attempts sparkles with new promise.

Last December, Bill Freeman, who spent three years as chief executive officer and director of McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants Inc., opened the 116-seat Vine American Kitchen in Ballantyne, breathing life into a freestanding building in desperate need of revival. Vine is described as a "premium casual concept," a trending category of corporate restaurants that promises an evolved menu (mimicking independently owned chef-driven spots), well-trained servers and an upscale beverage program.

Not surprisingly, Vine's customer base skews suburban with a prosperous bar scene. The interior screams familiar with exposed brick, honeyed wood, amber tones and an open view of the kitchen. The seats are plush and the sound level low. An expansive 54-seat bar dominates one side. High walls around the booths in the dining area immediately give the sense of privacy in that 1990s way, making you want to whip out dark wine lipstick and wish for Clinton-era boom times.

But the menu is not retro, although a blackened salmon is featured on the sandwich roster and a loaded baked potato accompanies the ribeye steak. The dishes here offer assurance and familiarity in equal measures: herb-rubbed rotisserie chicken or roast beef, ribs, steaks, fish, burgers and flatbreads. A nod is given to the bayou with such dishes as jambalaya, gumbo and a NOLA-styled barbecue shrimp appetizer — but with only five medium-sized shrimp at nine bucks, it's hardly NOLA-friendly.

Crabcake appetizer - MEREDITH JONES
  • Meredith Jones
  • Crabcake appetizer

Better from the starter list is a trio of bite-sized crabcakes with a ramped-up remoulade. Meanwhile, the salads are perfunctory: blue cheese, pear, candied pecans; field greens and goat cheese. Yawn. A sense of rote flattens the side list as well: seasoned French fries, sweet potato fries, garlic smashed potatoes, baked potatoes. Clearly what is written on Vine's menu is what you get, and since, for many, surprise is hardly a dining imperative, this might be welcomed. The ribeye is indeed seasoned with their house-made — albeit salty — rub, and the Atlantic salmon is "simply grilled." Enough said. Desserts, such as the densely flavored key lime pie, are made in-house.

As I stated earlier, two essential components of the premium casual concept are having a well-trained staff and an evolved wine and bar program, which brings me to this:

When I asked to see the "special" cruvinet wine list, the one advertised on the regular wine list as having "21 unique selections rated over 90 points and offered by the glass and half glass," my server responded by dismissing me, saying it had by-the-glass prices of "$20 to $30." He turned to leave, but I insisted. That list, which in fact did not even denote vintages, does not contain any glasses for $30, and of the 17 wines offered, 11 are less than 20 bucks.

The presumption that any woman would not have the knowledge or the money to see any wine list is rather shocking — and completely unacceptable.

Clearly, not every server at Vine is "well-trained."

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