Decor delights, menu stumbles at Vinings eatery

With its shingled walls and brick walkways, its gabled dormers and its looming brick clock tower, Vinings Jubilee presents a perfect example of the neo-Victorian architecture once built to humanize pre-fab townscapes. It is a shopping mall, no doubt, with Ann Taylor and CVS nestled discreetly behind appropriate frontage in the serpentine parking lot. But it is also a town center for a town that needed one when it opened in 1986, and it still exudes the kind of whitewashed World’s Fair cheer you associate with a Florida Panhandle resort town or a theme park hotel.

I like being there, sitting on the deep brick patio at Paces & Vine, surrounded by cypress, begonias and Dodge Grand Caravans. Dinner is over, and I’m sharing the last splashes from a nice bottle of wine with friends as the night air reclaims its unseasonable chill. We comment on the crackling fire nearby, and our waiter, upon hearing us, asks, “Would you like me to move your table?” He and a colleague pick up the table and plunk it right in front of the fireplace. Dessert and coffee soon arrive, and we feel like we’ve snagged the best waiter and the best table in all the metro area. In a parking lot.

Paces & Vine has settled so comfortably into its space since opening late last year that you assume it has always been there. Owner Tom Murphy and chef Ian Winslade have not exactly cloned Murphy’s, their Virginia-Highland mainstay, but replicated that restaurant’s warm neighborhood spirit and special dining niche. This is a place for people who want an appealing wine list and an American bistro menu filled with more variety than surprise. The food, to my taste, is good enough. It seems like the product of a gourmet assembly line — fine if you order a simple piece of meat or fish with x, y or z garnish but uneven when you venture into pastas, soups and dishes that require thoughtful seasoning and finesse. Order well, and you can get on to the business of a most enjoyable night.

Most of the dishes here come off as slight variations on items you know. Sometimes they compare well: Tuna tartare in a sweet ginger marinade looks lovely with its tuft of cucumber ribbons, while plump mussels arrive steamed in a tomato basil pesto broth that seems neither thin nor overly buttery, so you’ll keep dunking and dunking bread until the pot is dry.

But maybe you’ll wish, as I did, that the flash-fried calamari came with a lemon wedge and a better dip than its wan marinara and mustard sauces. Or that the overly processed peekytoe crabcake sparkled with the flavor of fresh, sweet crabmeat.

This kitchen likes to cook fish and does a nice job keeping the plates lively. Crisp fillets of Georgia trout straddle a mound of wheat berries, carrots and asparagus in a green herb broth. This dish (like much of the food here) needed a bit of acid to sharpen it, but with a bottle of Lioco rose and that patio, you’ve got a happy-making late spring dinner.

A monkfish special in a fanciful tangle of shaved asparagus, pickled beech mushrooms and popped sorghum went for similar flavor notes but was cooked in a way that accentuated this fish’s chewy, springy texture.

Maybe an entree salad of seared rare tuna with greens and the world’s tiniest avocado garnish was a bit of a snooze, but I’m probably not the right demographic for this dish. The trio of bone-thin ladies at the next table? The ones sharing a bottle of white wine and repeatedly telling the waiter they haven’t had a chance yet to look at the menu? They’ll love it.

Trouble arrives in the form of pasta. A kind of thick, pasty Irish boarding school lamb ragu arrives with a dollop of yogurt and a bed of gnocchi that have decided they’re really mashed potatoes. Fettuccine with “spring peas, fava beans and aerated Parmesan” turns out to be dense pasta in wallpaper paste cream sauce with peas and an obnoxious surfeit of whole mint clusters on the stem. Fava beans? Not a one.

I do let them know about this favaless farrago, so they offer a round of desserts. Which brings me back to that fireplace, where we’re passing around bites of sticky toffee pudding, hot peach cobbler with goat milk ice cream and a brilliant fresh blueberry tart. We get coffee because we don’t want the evening to end. Then we talk about bourbon and brandy but, alas, everyone lives too far away to indulge before the drive home. And, look, there’s my car, parked right next to this oddly perfect patio table.

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