Hops & Vines strives to charm

As I walked into Hops & Vines on Friday night with two near and dear friends, I couldn’t help but wonder why our beloved Record could not foot the bill. As one approaches the restaurant, fronted by a fire-lit patio with older couples sipping from reflective glassware, one becomes aware rather quickly that, yes, this is going to cost more than the average Sushi Thai Garden jaunt.

The restaurant, which opened on Water Street this summer, boasts both good food and pleasant atmosphere, but not without a side of self-consciousness. That is, the place seems hyper-aware of its own purposes: Its basic premise, the division into the more casual beer garden, “Hops,” and its upscale brasserie counterpart, “Vines,” is overly deliberate, almost awkwardly accommodating to the mood in which patrons find themselves on any given night. (Cutely, the restaurant keeps all of its beers on display in the Hops room, and all its wines on display on the Vines side.)

Exposed brick walls and chalkboard pillars give Hops & Vines a refined but deliberate ambiance.

My friends and I chose to dine in Hops for the evening, which conveniently allows you to order from both the Hops bar menu and the full dinner menu. The atmosphere does, as I alluded to, seem a little forced, with its chalkboard-covered pillars, vintage popcorn-making machine and gentrified glass beer-pong table. The large, solid wooden tables that provide the seating in Hops seem important, with expansive surfaces. They become a welcome solution to the assortment of menus, small plates, cell phones buzzing with evening plans, napkins, beer and wine glasses and, eventually, the thinning wallets that become part of a Hops & Vines evening.

One friend ordered the house lager at $3.50, which he described as “perfectly normal” and reasonably priced. The other ordered a glass of the Votre Sante (Pinot Noir, California, 2009) at $9. I tried the Chateau Roc de Segur (Bordeaux, 2009), also at $9. The pinot, a favorite I discovered over the summer, is a treat in itself, delicious and innocently sweet. The Bordeaux is simple, not overwhelming and was a nice accompaniment to the food when it arrived.

The best course of action seemed to be ordering the small plates from the bar menu to share, and then each ordering personal selections from the Vines dinner menu. We began with the Devil on a Horseback, described as “raclette-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon.” The plate arrived with two skewers of three neatly-wrapped date nuggets each resting in a sticky pool of balsamic glaze. Each date was rich like candy, though in the end the crispy bacon was the only taste we were left with.

Our second starter was the beef-and-bacon sliders. Three of them arrived on our second of many crisp white plates for the evening, tucked in simple white buns lacking the 12 grains that many students require of their carbohydrates. However, the bread turned out to be toasted just perfectly to compliment the juicy meat, cheese and bacon inside.

In the interest of economizing, we each chose our personal dishes from the Vines starter menu rather than their entrée selection, which is priced in the $20 to $30 range. One friend ordered the warm spinach salad, which contained poached eggs, King Oyster mushrooms, figs and guanciale, a type of Italian bacon that comes from pigs’ cheeks. He described the salad as a “really good mix of salty and sweet,” with a simple dressing that succeeded in letting the mix of solid ingredients shine. Our other friend chose the mushroom ravioli, which also comes in an entrée size. Her plate arrived with distinctly less crispness, with a gloppy and mostly colorless mess of ricotta cheese, pasta and yellow cherry tomatoes. The dish fell heavily on the salty side, though still appealing in that cheesy comfort-food vein.

I ordered the shrimp skewers, which arrived, much like our Devil on a Horseback, in two sets of three. The shrimp were juicy, their marinade tasty enough to lick off your fingers, but small. At $12, the dish takes advantage of its patrons more than a bit. I’d order it again, though, largely because of the underlying bed of “Mexican corn,” a creamy concoction of delicately charred and mildly seasoned corn that could stand alone any day.

Because the dessert we originally ordered was going to take longer than half an hour to arrive because of kitchen delays, our waitress compensated us with the restaurant’s butterscotch pudding, free of charge. Served in a mason jar, perhaps its best quality was its simple coolness, which provided a welcome chill on the tongue after tasting so many dishes throughout the evening.

Waiting for the bill, I found that the “Simon was here” and “Cleveland Rox” written by former patrons on the chalkboard pillars were less jarring after a few glasses of wine. Looking around I realized there was actually a really pleasant mix of students and non-students in the room. Definitely overpriced and a little too contrived in its intentions, it’s not a place to go every week. But I’d be happy to accompany old and new friends for fresh conversations at its white-plate laden tables at least a few times more.