New Neighborhood Bistro Welcome Addition to Locust Point
Luca's Café is a new corner joint in Locust Point. It's the kind of place where there are linen tablecloths but paper napkins, and about the worst thing you can say about Luca's is that it seems content to hang out in the middle of the road. On the other hand, Locust Point kind of needed a place just like Luca's, which feels right for that evolving neighborhood, sharp and serious enough for the newcomers but not precious in a way that would offend the Formstoners. The crowd we saw here, upstairs and down, on two visits, skewed somewhat to folks in their 40s and 50s. Everyone looked relaxed and happy.
A long, long entrance bar anchors the ground floor, with a handful of four-tops placed between it and the kitchen. The second stories of Baltimore rowhouse restaurants are often dire, but Luca's is very nice without being fussy. It's outfitted with solid and comfortable furniture and decorated cheerfully with original art on brick walls.
The opening menu at Luca's is accessible: a trio of salads, and a handful each of appetizers, sandwiches, pizzas, and mostly moderately priced entrées--no small plates, and, more and more, I find myself missing them when they're not there. One big favor Luca's could do for itself is to rewrite and redesign its menu, which sometimes offers terse descriptions but usually just a list of oddly ranked ingredients, separated by tildes. So the dip ($6) is: roasted shallots ~ reggiano mascarpone ~ basil pesto ~ jumbo lump crab with toast points.
At its best, Luca's turns out very impressive versions of standard bistro fare. These include a fantastic steak sandwich ($11), with tender slices of tri-tip, fried hot, and sweet pepper, roasted garlic, and provolone, all on a crusty hunk of toasted ciabbata; the same steak, now rubbed with barbecue spices, placed on crostini, and served as an appetizer with a horseradish dipping sauce ($8); an appetizer of massive heads-on shrimp, served in a mop-up-able bath of chopped tomatoes with garlic and cilantro ($15); and, especially, a dry-rubbed Caribbean baked chicken entrée ($16), which was truly very subtle in its spicing, with more attention on keeping the meat moist than on scalding the tongue.
The kitchen gets to show off with its fish of the day, which typically includes a fillet and a whole fish, prepared either Mediterranean- or jungle-style. The latter is a house-specialty Peruvian preparation, which involves wrapping the fish, along with cilantro, tomato, onion, and lemon, in banana leaves before grilling. A red snapper ($27) done this way turned out plenty moist and delicious, truly, but maybe just a little watery. Could something else--perhaps some quinoa or banana slices--get stuffed in those leaves, too?
There are clunkers, like the Hungarian goulash with gnocchi ($11), a big bowl of boring that some freshly ground cinnamon couldn't hurt; and some misadventures, like the soggy Mediterranean pizza ($9), which advertised a kalamata tapenade along with goat cheese, feta, and mozzarella but instead used, clumsily, unsliced assorted olives. Most dishes betray enthusiastic attention to appearance, but a few items lacked luster--the crab dip appetizer ($6) mentioned above was super smooth and tasty but deserves a better vessel than a soup cup and better bread or toast for dipping.
I liked Luca's, particularly how easily negotiable it was, and, if I'm not quite ready to fight my way to Locust Point for it on a regular basis, I would absolutely hang out there all the time if it was in my neighborhood. I like seeing that the owner is very much on hand, superintending the staff--a good sign. And I haven't even mentioned the gorgeous and perfect chocolate-banana bread pudding ($8), because it's not on the regular menu, and if it's not there when you visit, I'd hate to think I made you cry.