Food & Drink

Pig Out in Harbor East

Jesse Sandlin and Jim Lancaster open a barbecue joint

When executive chef Jesse Sandlin sent out word in mid-summer that
the hip, charming wine bar Vino Rosina was closing its doors in Harbor
East after a three-year run, I was saddened by the news but not entirely
surprised. I’ve long been a fan of owner Jim Lancaster, who years ago
brought gourmet Italian deli food to Baltimore with his brilliant
sandwich shop Rosina Gourmet, and I had high hopes for his first venture
into full-blown restaurateurship. And Sandlin, the former Top Chef
competitor who opened Vino Rosina (she subsequently left and came back),
is a talent to be reckoned with. Indeed, the restaurant was lovely, but
the opening of a spate of similar, wine-bar-ish enterprises nearby
proved to be a competitive hurdle too high to surmount, a familiar
scenario in the precarious restaurant world.

But the plucky Lancaster and Sandlin had no intention of folding.
Instead, they had something else up their sleeves, the launch of an
entirely new venture in the same place mere weeks after Rosina had
closed. If upscale New American restaurants were now a dime a dozen in
glitzy Harbor East, they reasoned, why not open a barbecue joint?
Granted, an upscale barbecue joint, but nonetheless an anomaly in this
prime piece of real estate, one that offered something genuinely

Within a few weeks—warp speed in the restaurant world—Rosina was
transformed into a more casual barbecue venue. Enter the newly
christened Oliver Speck’s Eats & Drinks, a name borrowed from
Sandlin’s pet Juliana pig (Speck being the name of a variety of Tyrolean
ham). Not much needed to be done to the décor. The original exposed
brick and warm wood, mixed with industrial touches and chalkboard walls,
lend themselves to a more relaxed vibe. The changes are subtle: There
are two big-screen TVs in the bar now for Ravens’ watching and two big
communal tables in the center of the dining room, along with metal
chairs in primary red, orange, black, and silver, all of which quietly
state that Ollie’s, as it’s dubbed in the mission statement, is for good
times. And the price point is just that much lower—enough to encourage a
regular crowd.

It doesn’t hurt that the cuisine is squarely in Sandlin’s wheelhouse:
southern-style comfort food with decadent ingredients and rich flavors.
There are crunchy, salty pork cracklings and fat fried oysters to snack
on. Smoky bacon studs the egg-laden potato salad and an arugula “BLT”
salad with homemade ranch dressing. The grits are creamy, the cornbread
tastes like dessert, and the biscuits are buttery good. No dieting

The first time two companions and I tried Ollie’s back in early
September, these sides and small bites were the highlights of the meal.
We loved the little snacks—excellent deviled eggs and a Mason jar full
of zippy house-pickled vegetables—plus those tender biscuits with
homemade jam. The sides, which come a la carte at $4 each or with
various meat combos, are impossible to stop eating. Case in point: A
little pot of delicately mild macaroni and white cheddar dusted with
porcini mushrooms and breadcrumbs disappeared so quickly we had to order
another one. A spinach salad made us feel more virtuous, although the
topping of fresh late-summer peaches and blue cheese was as irresistible
as the richer dishes.

There are four basic barbecue choices on the menu, and we tried them
all. We were happy with the tender pile of just-vinegary-enough pulled
pork (which you can get piled on a bun or solo) and a beef brisket that
appropriately melted in the mouth. But our Texas-born pal was not
convinced by the pork ribs, specifically by the sauce. I know that civil
wars have broken out over the particulars of barbecue, but my quibble
wasn’t about regional pride but taste—the sauce was just a tad too sweet
and slightly bland. Happily, a sextet of various and delicious
house-made sauces appeared at our table, which we sprinkled on

Likewise, the smoked chicken was disappointingly dry.

But a month later we came back to find that these two glitches had
been fixed, the pork ribs gilded with a dry rub that was satisfyingly
peppery and devoid of cloying sweetness. No need for hot sauce. And the
chicken? Juicy, smoky, and flavorful. We were a little sad to see that
lately this item has disappeared from the menu and been replaced by an
herb-rubbed roasted chicken.

Desserts here are, as you’d expect, unfussy and home-style. The
bourbon-laced pecan pie topped with bourbon-vanilla ice cream was a
dizzying delight.

Speaking of bourbon, it shows up in several artisanal cocktails and
is a specialty of the house. As befits a barbecue joint, the emphasis at
Ollie’s is on beer, bourbon, and whiskey; wine lovers have to content
themselves with a list of about a dozen reds and whites. If you want to
get into the down-home mood here, you’ll be wise to forget the old Vino
Rosina and surrender to a more laid-back kind of fun.

410-528-8600. HOURS Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner: 5-10 p.m.
Mon.-Thurs., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (brunch) and 4-9 p.m.
Sun. CUISINE Barbecue. PRICE Appetizers and salads: $2-8; entrees:
$8-40; desserts: $4-6. ATMOSPHERE A relaxed vibe with a bar area with a
TV and a dining room with two communal tables as well as individual