Tapas Comes To Baltimore? Been There, Done That
Baltimore’s small-plate revolution took place quietly, organically. A few small and locally conceived restaurants opened and did things well, a few more followed, and slowly small plates began invading the fringes of many other restaurant’s menus—sometimes, irksomely, in the form of a relabeled appetizer section. It’s only now that tapas in the form of an aggressive concept has crashed onto our shores, and the best thing about La Tasca Spanish Tapas Bar and Restaurant (Harborplace, 201 E. Pratt St.,  209-2563) is how much it will make you appreciate what we’ve already discovered about tapas on our own.
La Tasca’s new Baltimore location is the third opening in the United States—the other two are in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va.—of a restaurant chain that began in 1993 in Manchester and which has since been replicated more than 50 times throughout the United Kingdom. Like its other restaurants, the two-story Harborplace location spares no design expense. Timbered in fine woods, smacked gaily with warm tiles, and stuffed from floor to ceiling with majolica, oil paintings, wicker baskets, and dried flowers, La Tasca’s pillows-on-the-banquettes ambiance is so expansive, comfortable, and welcoming, and makes such nice use of the pavilion’s natural light and outdoor seating, that most diners will be willing to overlook its spuriousness.
Baltimore’s menu, like La Tasca’s others, reasonably arranges thirty-some offerings into groupings of seafood, meats, and vegetables. There are separate listings of paellas and what La Tasca refers to, a little confusingly, as things “to start with”—fried eggplant, garlic bread, homemade potato chips. Careful, though, as these unaccountably large servings will erode your appetite—which, as it turns out, might not be such a bad thing.
From here, the pleasurable chore of choosing up small plates begins in earnest. We showed up on a Sunday night, when La Tasca was running a special—a pitcher of sangría (usually $17.95) and four tapas for $24.95. We did this twice. La Tasca’s sangrías—there are nine versions—lean to the sweet side, and pitchers are overstuffed with ice.
On this and a previous visit to La Tasca, the fun of assembling a meal was eventually outmatched by a sense of building suspense—would anything ever be delivered to the table that was worth recommending? Not the vegetables. Not grilled fresh asparagus ($4.95), with spears too thick and stalky and which were crying for a dash of salt. Not the lazily considered cremini mushrooms ($3.95), sautéed with raw garlic in too much olive oil, which needed really only a sprinkling of fresh herbs to make them not so blazingly boring. And never again the sautéed spinach ($4.25), into which untoasted pine nuts and raisins had been uselessly tossed.
Don’t bother with the scallops ($5.25), which take on an oddly bitter finishing flavor amid their mix of garlic, onions, and minced green and red peppers. And definitely not the calamari ($5.25), which is overbattered and underfried to an unflattering white and then served in a big, messy clump. Nor should you bother with the grilled salmon ($6.75), which seems to have been grilled with the oddly bitter onions and minced peppers that afflicted the scallops.
Almost the pork ribs ($7.95), which we liked on first apple-tangy bite, but then realized we were impressed with them because they actually had a flavor. They turned out to be fatty and served in excessive sauce. Not the dingy lamb casserole ($6.25), either, and not even the manchego cheese ($5.45), which was sweaty and missing its sheepy tang. We did like the grilled chorizo ($5.45), so there’s that.
Paellas, which are served for a minimum of two people, and which take 45 minutes to prepare, are not the solution. The one we ordered, paella de carne ($3.95 person), is handsomely assembled in a black skillet, but the chicken was distressingly tough and the rice’s broth lacked evidence of any flavor more complex than salt.
If the food is never really loathsome, never, never is it zesty, aromatic, sensuous, piquant, or at all interesting. Nothing appears with the loving finesse of even the worst dishes at Tapas Teatro, Pazo, or Mezze, three restaurants in Baltimore that helped usher in the age of small plates, and which together have made the arrival of La Tasca an occasion for appreciating the achievements of our own city’s adventurous restaurateurs.