Jesse Sandlin goes whole hog with Oliver Speck's

The bottles of fine wine cradled in the racks lining the walls at the new Oliver Speck's Eats and Drinks (507 S. Exeter St., [410] 528-8600) are slowly but surely being replaced by Ball jars crammed with pickled things-peppers, beets, green beans, and the like-or packed with stewed tomatoes or sweet fruit hibernating, summer flavors intact.

A dividing banquette in the once-intimate dining room has been removed, replaced by two high, communal tables surrounded by shiny orange, black, and silver metal stools.

The goal here is to bring the fine-dining expectation down a few notches while increasing the anticipation of a rollicking evening that will likely involve sticky fingers and quite possibly an excess of spirit-the liquid kind.

When chef Jesse Sandlin announced in early summer that Vino Rosina was closing, there was a ripple of regret. The comfortable small plates wine bar, which Sandlin herself had opened in 2010 (before leaving and then returning), was a nice spot to swirl a glass at the large square bar that dominated the front room. But Sandlin, it seems, had grown weary of the concept-or sensed ennui among the clientele, who faced a profusion of wine-and-small plates choices popping up in the neighborhood in recent years.

But any sadness was soon assuaged with the announcement that Sandlin herself would stay on board, helming a pig-centered place. The new concept, we were told, would reflect the Top Chef alumna's passion for both smoking and grilling (as well as cuddling it in the flesh when she returns home each night to her miniature pet Juliana pig, Oliver Speck).

Sandlin promised a "something for everyone" place (except, perhaps, animal rights-types or vegans), with affordable appetizers and fun cocktails. Aside from the modifications in the floor plan (with the addition of the large table), the joint hasn't changed much. What was Vino's kind of mod, spare interior seems to have transitioned without much fuss into a bare-bones country kinda place-the slate walls, exposed brick, and wood tables and trim have easily shifted the vibe from Mad Men to hillbilly chic.

The price point fits the simple decor. Our party of four shared the most expensive plate on the menu, the $40 "Whole Hog," as our main course. The "choice" of four meats didn't offer much wiggle room, as there were only four to choose from. (I suppose we could have had a double order of the sweet tea-brined smoked chicken, which turned out to be the favorite, as a replacement for the beef brisket that, while filled with flavor, was, as brisket is wont to be, on the dry side.) A chicken leg and thigh, a slab of brisket, a swath of ribs, and a mound of pulled pork were artlessly arranged on a plain plate. Just the meat, ma'am.

But the selection of four sides still leaves room for plenty of choice. We picked mashed potatoes and gravy (straightforward, meh), 'slaw (crispy and sweet), mac 'n' cheese (restores my faith in this ubiquitous dish for the light touch on the cheese and the nice crumbles of breadcrumbs and seasonings), and grits (not creamy, the flavor of each pearl of grain coming through). The meats also come with a choice of buttermilk biscuits or cornbread. Both are worth sampling-the sweet and moist cornbread, laced with kernels, could easily have stood in for dessert; while the fat biscuit, we later learned, actually was dessert, piled with fresh peaches and ice cream.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that the plate of four meats with four sides would normally satisfy four hungry eaters, but by the time we reached the point of ordering an entree, we'd already been sated with several rounds of Southern hospitality. We started the evening at the bar and ordered just about every appetizer listed on the big chalkboard overhead. A plate of deviled eggs (two eggs), piped with horseradish-laced centers, and a dish of pork cracklins' (which taste like crispy salted air) can be had for two bucks each. A dish of crunchy smoked almonds or a pot of smoky pimiento cheese and crackers are $4. The appetizer list tops out at $8 for a substantial plate of spicy chicken wings with bleu cheese dip and celery on the side. My favorite-for sheer novelty as well as flavor-was the "little jar of pickled things" ($4), a miniature canning jar with a colorful and briny mix of sliced peppers, radishes, and carrots as well as whole cloves of garlic.

We also sipped on a few of the restaurant's creative cocktails-the Ollie's Manhattan ($10), Buffalo Trace bourbon sweetened with house-made cherry-vanilla bitters, adorned with sweet marinated cherries (which the bartender voluntarily replaced as I gobbled each one up). The Maine Mule ($10) is made with vodka from the part of the Vacation State where people don't do much vacationing, a nice combination of the potatoes and blueberries grown there, here mixed with ginger beer and lime. The small selection of $7 draft beers is carefully curated, a couple of locals (Stillwater and Union) sharing the taps with a Colorado pilsner and a tripel from California with Thai basil.

The wine choices are nothing to write home about, minimally nuanced pinot noir, cabernet, and a selection of whites served in substantial glasses. But we visited the nascent Oliver Speck's when the wine from its predecessor still lingered on the wall, so we ordered a Super Tuscan (at cost), a purchase that added value to our already oh-so-reasonably priced meal. Those bottles, we fear, are going fast. Any day now, the transition will be complete, and the racks at Oliver Speck's Eats and Drinks will look like they were designed to hold jars of deliciousness from the start.

Oliver Speck's serves dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m., and Sunday from 4-9 p.m. Brunch is served Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

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