Dilettante: Kicking back in Old Vines Wine Bar

Posted Wednesday, April 13, 2011 in Culture

Dilettante: Kicking back in Old Vines Wine Bar

by Jan Brennan

Old Vines Wine Bar
173 Port Road, Kennebunk
phone 967-2310
Open 5-11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday

 KENNEBUNK -- Mike Farrell has one mission: to make people comfortable.

 No one, he says, should feel intimidated by a sommelier when ordering a bottle of wine. Nor should diners feel guilty for taking up a table in a busy restaurant when all they are in the mood for is a bowl of soup. A night out should be all about relaxation and enjoying yourself.

 And he’s providing a perfect place for that: Old Vines, his wine bar in Kennebunk.

Old Vines Wine Bar

 A native of the Philadelphia area, Farrell is a trained chef with experience ranging from New York’s Four Seasons to the executive dining room of Merck Pharmaceuticals. He and his wife, Jodie, moved to Maine in 2006, looking for a simpler lifestyle. After stints cooking in a couple of Kennebunkport and Wells restaurants, Farrell decided to open his own place, one where food and wine play second fiddle to his real passion: “Hospitality,” he says. “That’s what I’m all about.”

 “Our atmosphere is warm and inviting and super low-key,” he says of Old Vines. “I want people to sit back, keep the table for as long as they want.”  
 He opened Old Vines in May of 2009 in Kennebunk’s Lower Village, which is the quieter side of Kennebunkport’s touristy Dock Square. In an area thick with gourmet restaurants, Farrell wanted to provide a simpler alternative.

 “No assumptions about sitting and ordering an appetizer, entree, dessert, etc. Make as much or as little of it as you want. That is what I am trying to convey to people,” he says.

 It’s the pared-down simplicity that differentiates Old Vines from the wine bars in, say, Portland, which have been around a decade or more. “Most ‘wine bars’ in this country are really restaurants that have lots of wine by the glass. And that’s great, but wine bars are much more casual than that,” Farrell explains.

 Farrell’s changing wine list offers, at this writing, 38 bottles, 24 of which are available by the glass or half-glass. California, France, Italy and Spain are well-represented, but Farrell most enjoys finding new favorites from more unexpected places like Brazil and Uruguay. Prices range from $3.50 for a half-glass of several reds to $80 for a bottle of Delbeck Champagne. Full glasses generally range from $7 to $10.

 Three types of draft beer, including Maine’s own Allagash White and Peak Organic IPA, are offered along with four by the bottle or can. New this year are mixed drinks, with the house special cocktails costing about $8. 

 Food enhances the wine-drinking experience, and we think it’s here that Old Vines  really shines. Patrons can mix and match selections from a list of snacks: these include various spreads; marinated olives or mushrooms; a daily soup; almonds spiced with smoked paprika, cocoa and cumin; and a good selection of cheeses and cured meats, both domestic and foreign. Any of these antipastos can be had for 5 or 6 bucks.

 For people who want more than a nibble, Farrell offers salads, pizza and panini, a daily quiche and other hot and heartier dishes such as duck drumsticks or short ribs with polenta and cherry confit, ranging in price from $7 to $12. A return to warmer weather will bring lighter items to the small-plates menu, such as his popular lobster panino, which pairs Maine’s signature ingredient with Muenster cheese, fresh greens and a lemon saffron aioli. We were impressed with the delicate texture of his quiche, that night’s version containing goat cheese, shallots and sun-dried tomatoes, served with a heap of fresh, peppery arugula and a dish of marinated whole mushrooms.

 Desserts are also home-made. On past visits we’ve enjoyed a big-enough-for-two bowl of coconut rice pudding that was as light as air. Fruity, anise biscotti were tender yet still held up to the traditional dunking in a glass of sweet wine.

 Farrell uses local sources for food as much as possible. In season, he shops the farmers’ markets in Kennebunk and Portland, snapping up whatever looks freshest and most piques his culinary imagination. For the winter, he loads up on produce from Sparrow Arc Farm in Troy, filling the Old Vines cellar with root vegetables.

 On our last visit, vintage Miles Davis was playing softly in the background. That classic jazz combined with the warm glow of flickering candles reflected in antique mirrors and gleaming woodwork created an unexpected oasis of sophistication inside the antique barn that houses Old Vines. “Tuscan rustic meets urban chic,” we thought. Farrell, who restored the old, blue barn with the help of a designer, would put the emphasis on the “rustic.”

 “I worked really hard to make this an unpretentious, friendly place,” he says. “I mean, wine is just fermented grape juice. That’s it.“

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