At Vino Vino, thinking outside the glass

With dishes such as succulent mussels with fries, expanded menu at Hyde Park wine bar pairs well with its wine selection

People loved Vino Vino. But they kept leaving. After a few glasses of wine, their thoughts turned to dinner, and options at the wine bar that opened in 2006 were limited.

Managing partner Jeff Courington remedied Vino Vino's greatest challenge in 2008, adding a full kitchen and bringing in Chef Esteban Escobar, veteran of Fino and Lambert's. Over the past three years, the inviting space on Guadalupe Street has gone from a great wine bar with snacks to a great restaurant with an amazing wine list. Nestled quietly on the edges of Hyde Park and North Campus, Vino Vino feels like a neighborhood haunt that has been serving as an extended parlor room for decades. Part of that charm comes from the 115-year-old wooden floors, exposed beams and the massive bar taken from the Bitter End, which closed in 2005 following a fire. With its steel light fixtures and honeyed light, it is a place that balances modern and classic.

Small table lamps dot the long bar, offering soft reading light for those wanting to grab a bite and a glass to go with their book. But Vino Vino's ambience is more suited for eating and imbibing with others. The shotgun format is populated with big wooden tables, several of which can serve as communal eating spots on busy weekend nights.

Floor-to-ceiling wine racks stretch along the dining room walls, mostly European labels that number in the hundreds. Neophytes need not be intimidated, however. Courington believes wine should be an everyday experience. Helpful index cards provide clever and plain-spoken descriptions of the wine, along with recommendations. Think of it as BookPeople for Bacchus.

The crisp citrus of the versatile Adriano Adami Garbel 13 prosecco makes for a wonderful start to any meal, giving a sense of occasion, even when there is not one. But anytime you can get incredible mussels and fries ($12) like those served at Vino Vino, there is cause for celebration. Take your fork and blend the white wine, tarragon and garlicky aïoli together to form a creamy broth so divine you might find yourself asking for more homemade bread to sop every last bit. Your server won't judge you. At least, mine didn't. Just resist the temptation to pour it in your mouth. Golden fries, thicker and less greasy than the wimpy variety seen on many similar plates around town, come served in a neat pile, just the right amount of starch to accompany the tender bivalves.

On each visit, friendly servers offered helpful direction in wine selection. The silky deep plum flavors of the Caldaro Dolomite pinot nero ($12) coaxed and enveloped the bloody intensity of a medium-rare Wagyu beef slider ($5) topped with juicy tomato more vibrant than any shade of lipstick in the room. I only wanted one as an appetizer, but the price would be a little steep for ordering multiple sliders as a meal. Three for $12 might change my mind.

Hearty coarse-grained garlic sausage highlighted a house-made charcuterie plate ($15) that featured subtle lamb terrine that resembled salami and a flavorful pork rillete that could have benefited from a bit more moisturizing fat, glutton that I am.

Amber and succulent, an airline-cut roasted chicken breast ($17) that brings a leg along for the ride, had almost as much moisture as the light veloute in which it sat. Bulgur and wilted-but-still-firm escarole provided crunch and texture, with tender chunks of butternut squash hinting that fall was right around the corner, a mood enhanced by the pear and apple notes of the recommended 2010 Gagliardo "Fallegro" 2010 ($11). A lightly fried cut added guilt and flavor to one of the best chicken dishes I've had in recent memory.

Large scallops ($22) arrived looking like toasted marshmallows, a deep and expansive crust giving way to ivory slivers. Tart, chewy shards of preserved lemon speckled the buttery soubise and made for an enjoyable bout of bread dipping and fork sifting, like a culinary version of an Easter egg hunt.

Another exemplary combination of sea and sear was the pan-sautéed snapper ($23), its crisp skin hidden beneath a liberal dollop of gribiche, a tartarlike sauce highlighted by aromatic tarragon. The green appeared multiple times during our visits, indicating the kitchen's nod to seasonality and freshness. One of the most interesting pairings suggested was the unique Sporteletti Assisi Grechetto ($13), brightening the dish with its grassy and herbaceous notes.

A twist on traditional carbonara ($20) presented house-cured duck bacon in the place of pancetta, but saltiness distracted from perfectly cooked homemade tagliatelle that could rival some of the city's best pastas despite the need for more egg presence in the dish. Another deviation from the norm proved even less successful with the beef sirloin ($19). The pedestrian cut of meat, though cooked perfectly, failed to taste like anything more than hamburger. Fortunately the bold flavors of dark cherry from the Domaine Roche Audran Cotes du Rhône ($10) lingered. So did the question as to why Vino Vino would use sirloin at that price point when other restaurants (Enoteca, to name one) accomplish much more with hanger steak at the same price.

A smooth, goat cheese cake ($8) bordered by a cookie-like whole wheat crust resembled a bank of packed snow, but with four cheese plates on the menu, one has multiple options at the end of meals. Generous portions of the creamy and earthy Mt. Tam ($8) served with slices of sensuous peach and cheery basil alongside a pistachio brittle make for a delicious dessert alternative.

Vino Vino's move from wine bar to a more full-service dining experience has done nothing to change the relaxed and convivial environment. On each visit, I ran into friends and acquaintances, meetings always eased by the grape, and dinners can unwind over an unrushed period of hours. Servers, though sometimes distracted by the ebullient but not obnoxious crowd, maintain an outstanding knowledge of wine, and the gregarious Courington plays affable host, wine steward, food runner and maintainer of the vibe. Vino Vino epitomizes what a classic and classy neighborhood joint should be, a place where people can now not only sip, but also stay awhile.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

Vino Vino

4119 Guadalupe St. 465-9282, vinovinoaustin.com

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Hours: Bar: Monday through Friday, 3 p.m. to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Kitchen: Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Prices: Small plates $4-$15. Big plates $15-$23. Wine by the glass $9-$13.

Notes: Vino Vino began liquor service in March and offers draft beer from locals Real Ale, Live Oak and 512 Brewing.

What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.

The Bottom Line: No longer just an excellent wine bar, Vino Vino has become a great restaurant with a massive wine list.

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