Where the Wine Things Are 

At Magnolia's, the grapes are the best item on the menu.

click to enlarge food21_magnolis_200.jpg

In a lean economy, fine wines and dining out are among the first casualties in a household budget. But Matthew Woolridge isn't daunted. About a year ago, when he was working at Village Fine Wine and Cigar, he hatched the idea to open a wine bar that would offer dozens of wines by the glass and half-glass, educate customers about wine and eliminate the pretense often associated with wine tasting.

The result, Magnolia's Wine Bar and Bistro, opened in December in the Village Shopping Center. It reflects that passion for making wine accessible to a broad audience — but it's still searching for a culinary identity.

Magnolia's raison d'etre, and certainly the reason to visit, is a selection of wines by the glass and half-glass that is unsurpassed in our area. Woolridge has 50 wines hooked up to a gizmo over the bar called a cuvenee system, which keeps single servings pouring fresh for a month. He offers 30 others by the glass. The selections range from a half-glass of Virginia cabernet by Prince Michel for $3.50, to a $44 glass (yes, glass) of Torbreck Factor from Australia. All wines are also available by the bottle and the case.

Takers for a $44 glass of shiraz (even a Barossa Valley purebred) in these times may be few and far between, but Woolridge banks on the good selection of moderately priced wines, as well as a series of special events, to keep traffic flowing. On the calendar are free tastings Tuesdays and Fridays, a daily happy hour from 4-7 p.m. with $5 glasses, live jazz on Sunday nights and wine dinners the third Thursday of every month.

The atmosphere and dAccor are also thoughtful. Warm lighting, the high, exposed ceilings, dark wood accents and jazz in the background seem designed to encourage patrons to sit and sip awhile. A covered patio on the breezeway makes outdoor dining possible even in inclement weather.

Special events, nice ambience and an extensive wine and beer selection aside, the kitchen at Magnolia's is struggling to find its footing. On paper, the menu is ambitious and sophisticated, but the delivery is inconsistent.

On a recent visit for dinner, the scallops on the tasting menu were sweet and perfectly tender, but the fish in the paella — scallops, shrimp and tuna — were overcooked. The rice itself was al dente to the max, and other than the saffron had none of the classic paella ingredients. The lamb chops were well-seared though under seasoned, and while the braised spinach was delightful, the lentils on top were chewy and out of place. The potato gaufrettes that appear on the menu do not appear on the plate. The wild mushroom and crab papardelle was virtually tasteless at first bite, the woodsy mushroom and sweet crab flavors appearing only after a liberal salting at the table.

Dessert, however, redeemed our entrees, with an otherworldly bananas Foster cheesecake and a deliciously berry-filled strawberry shortcake.

Like the dinner menu, the lunch lineup hits a few lovely high notes but is a work in progress. The monte cristo sandwich, usually an easy crowd-pleaser, is lackluster and spongy without the usual crispy edges or side of jelly, and the condiment described as pomegranate aioli looks and tastes like balsamic vinegar.

The crispy fish taco is satisfying, with thick strips of fresh tilapia, but a bit bland, and could use a healthy dose of lime juice, and, again, the salt shaker. The only sign of the promised guacamole was a pair of avocado slices and tidbits of tomato. The ahi tuna salad, however, was a knockout, with perfectly seared tuna slices, fresh greens and a bright and tangy garlic-sesame dressing.

Explaining the inconsistent food to some degree is that the kitchen is in transition, having just lost its original chef, and is in the process of rolling out a new menu. According to Woolridge, this transition is also fueled by a desire to move away from a fine-dining concept and appeal to a broader demographic, with a more casual bistro menu. The new summer menu and an official grand opening are scheduled for June.

Whether or not these revisions help Magnolia's establish a solid culinary focus, the impressive wine and beer selection, attentive service and well-trafficked location should keep it relevant. S

Magnolia's Wine Bar and Bistro $$$
7021 Three Chopt Road
Lunch: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Sunday-Monday, 5-9 p.m.; Tuesday-Wednesday, 5-10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Handicapped accessible
Smoking permitted on the patio after 9 p.m. (or in the absence of other patrons)


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