Photo by Madoline Markham.
VINO owner Al Rabiee with the restaurant’s Pan Seared Grouper.
A recent Friday evening had this Mountain Brook resident rubbing her eyes in disbelief: there was a veritable traffic jam in English Village. From my vantage point at a white-tablecloth-clad table on the pea-gravel-lined courtyard, I saw dozens of people make their way into the new restaurant at the corner of Cahaba Road and 20th Street South. VINO, open now for just a couple of months, is situated in the heart of English Village but diners will immediately find themselves feeling like they’re somewhere on the Cote d’Azur or Amalfi Coast.
Opened by Birmingham restaurateur Al Rabiee, VINO’s menu boasts such offerings as calamari, salmon artichoke skewers, salads, beef and chicken kabobs, simple grilled fish and more. My daughter, Amanda, and I were enjoying a girls’ night out and ordered several things to share. We started with the Artichoke Castroville featuring large California artichoke hearts filled with Bulgarian feta, plump sun-dried tomatoes and herbs. There were four pieces in this appetizer, priced at $6.50. Friends at nearby tables were busy enjoying their choices too: VINO Hummus ($5), Spice Shrimp ($7.75) and market-priced crab claws.
With a name like VINO, an extensive wine list is to be expected. VINO features vintages from California, Oregon, France, New Zealand, Australia, South America and of course, Italy. Bottles range in price from $26 for the Massimo Malbec of Mendoza to $180 for the Quintessa from Napa. Several wines can be ordered by the glass as well. A special martini menu is available too, featuring variations on the traditional like Apple, Lemon Drop, Pomegranate, and Watermelon. These are priced at $9 each and look delicious and fun.
Knowing we had large entrees coming, Amanda and I chose to split a salad and were glad we did. The waiter brought out two small plates, teeming with fresh Romaine, feta, Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, pepperoncini, tomatoes and toasted pita croutons. The well-balanced dressing arrived in cute miniature ceramic pitchers, allowing each of us to add as much or as little as we chose. Other salad options included a seafood pasta served atop field greens, a house salad and a knife & fork Caesar to which diners can add grilled or blackened chicken or sautéed shrimp.
Service was timely and well paced. We felt attended to without being rushed. Only seasoned waitstaff are able to pull off this feat, and we appreciated it. VINO’s servers wear desert khaki from head to toe, which lends a cool vibe to the Mediterranean feel.
In between courses, we had just enough time to take note of the fantastic location of this restaurant, a building that once housed everything from a gas station to an insurance office. Located in the back half of a cool white stucco building, the restaurant is owned by Rabiee but shares space with Gallery 1930. The arrangement is ideal as the two ventures really complement one another.
Our table, one of several located just outside the wide open restaurant doors, was situated perfectly: not too close to others so as to invite eavesdropping but close enough to ensure piping hot dishes when orders are ready. We noted our good fortune in calling ahead for a reservation on this busy night, which afforded us a spectacular view of a rising autumn moon.
Moments later, Amanda and I were tucking into Mediterranean Spinach Lasagna ($12.50) and Veal Ossobuco ($29.75). The lasagna was teeming with bright green spinach and gooey melted cheeses. The marinara sauce was not overly spicy but plentiful, filling up every bit of real estate on the medium-sized white plate. The portion was very generous. My ossobuco, one very large slow-cooked veal shank, was tender and amply accompanied by the requisite melted onions, mushrooms, carrots, celery and tomatoes. I enjoy cooking this Italian specialty at home and know this is a tough dish to perfect in a restaurant setting. A small cocktail fork filled in for the usual marrow spoon, which was a thoughtful touch.
We checked in with two tables of friends, also dining under the arboreal canopy. They were enjoying the Fresh Grouper (market price), Stuffed Artichoke Hearts ($12.75) and Capellini Vino ($14.75). There were oohs and aahs all around.
The waiter kindly packed up what we could not finish of our generously-sized entrees so that we could save room for dessert. Offering Deep-Dish Key Lime Cheesecake, signature VINO Apple Fritters and Fresh Fruit Cobbler, we instead chose the Chocolate Molten Cake. Achingly gratifying in its warm-center-meets-creamy-cold-ice-cream, we were more than satisfied.
VINO is a delightful neighborhood restaurant offering up charming Mediterranean cuisine in a refined but casual atmosphere. No passport required.