Spanish Tapas Restaurant Doesn't Live Up To Its Promise
Some restaurants we visit because we have to; some we visit because we want to. If we're lucky, obligation and anticipation intersect. Such was the case with my planned visit to TapaBar (413 S. High St.,  223-3020); I just couldn't wait to sample what I've come to love about authentic Spanish tapas: the small crocks of garlicky olives; the pairings of sweet and savory, like broiled dates with bacon or soft raisins nestled in spinach; the never-ending baskets of crispy bread, and towers of modestly sized plates, stacked five high. Since, unlike other local tapas restaurants, Baltimore's newest tapas restaurant serves mostly traditional Spanish small plates (even though it dwells in the neighborhood of its Mediterranean-via- Baltimore cousin, Little Italy), and because Baltimore has hosted its fair share of decent Spanish restaurants, I had high hopes. But the stacks of plates and warmly magical food never materialized, and like an evening out when the scales drop from your eyes and the date of your dreams becomes suddenly, saddeningly ordinary, sweet illusions of what TapaBar might be evaporated during long waits between orders (on a Saturday night, in a nearly empty restaurant) and uneven execution (and pricing) of the entrées.
TapaBar looks good with its deep crimson walls and sexy low lighting. Near the front door, a creamy beige sofa entices drinkers away from the bar, and I imagine that in warm months, the few tables in the bubble of glass that faces Eastern Avenue make for captivating people-watching. Wine is served in stemless glassware; food, on square white plates. It all feels modern and comfortably chic, proof that someone is paying careful attention to image.
TapaBar's menu is similarly seductive and offers many choices to ponder over mojitos. Do we order the bocadillos (described on the menu as "grilled baguette stuffed with olives and Spanish delicacies") or boquerones ("fresh marinated anchovy fillets, olives, and red onion")? Pollo relleno ("chicken breast stuffed with olives, raisins, and plums") or papas rellenas ("fried stuffed potatoes with chicken")? Then there are the questions that arise with every tapas meal: how many dishes do we need? Does everyone eat anchovies? Can we share the soup?
The answer to the latter is yes--if you dine with good friends and have multiple spoons. In any case, the alubias blancas soup ($4.95) was worth sharing. A creamy, hearty broth balanced with sturdy white beans and pieces of chorizo, it sated the comfort food craving on a chilly night. Balance and contrast were also evident in the espinaca salteadas ($5.95), spinach sautéed with raisins and tiny slices of apple, served warm. Less pleasing were the chuletillas ($8.95), two skinny, lamb chops, grilled way past well done, niños envueltos ($8.95), beef rolls, also overcooked, and pimiento piquillo ($8.95) one small red pepper filled (stuffed would be an overstatement) with a few morsels of limp salt cod. As the evening progressed, it became weirdly apparent that the less expensive tapas were not only tastier, but also more generous. Chorizo a la salsa ($6.95) offered hefty chunks of sausage with a sweet pepper relish while the slivers of anchovy and red pepper that made up the serving of boquerones ($7.95) was downright parsimonious. Papas rellenas ($5.95) were splendid, prompting one diner to blurt, "That's the best dish we've had all night!" It was. The croquettes were crispy outside with a generous helping of moist chicken tucked inside. We should have ordered two plates and forgotten the gambas al ajillo ($12.95) which was a serviceable dish of shrimp cooked in garlic and white wine--fine, but lacking in sizzle.
Dessert service epitomized the difficulties the restaurant had in getting food to our table. Though it's expected that entrée tapas will be served at intervals throughout the meal, desserts should be served all at once. Ours weren't, and this was no fault of our server, who was earnest and sweet-tempered; the kitchen made her job difficult. The house flan ($3.95) preceded a tepid fondue de chocolate served with apples, strawberries, and pineapple ($6.95) by a good 10 minutes. Churros de España with chocolate ($5.95), four skinny, lukewarm fried churros with a cup of pretty delicious frothy hot chocolate--potentially a great combo if the churros were better executed--were served several minutes after that.
TapaBar's empty dining room made for a lonely evening, even for a group of four, and maybe lack of business accounts for the extra charge for additional baskets of bread, or it explains why the restaurant was out of many of the wines on its list, including five of the most affordable reds and whites. This is a shame, because with better pacing and a reworking of some of the offerings, TapaBar could become a destination for traditional tapas. But not as it stands now. Although I wanted my night at TapaBar to be the start of something big, by the end of the evening, I was content just to be friends.
Open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays.