A New Mari Luna Restaurant Lives Up To Original's Impressive Standards
There's always some trepidation when a favorite business opens a new location, especially if that business is a restaurant, and the new location is decidedly more ambitious than the original. So when word spread last summer that Pikesville's cheery Mari Luna Mexican Grill would soon be having a sibling, Mari Luna Latin Grille (1010 Reisterstown Road,  653-5151), some patrons (OK, maybe just me) were both delighted and apprehensive. Could chef/owner Jaime Luna duplicate the restaurant's holy trinity of quality food, reasonable prices, and good service that makes Mari Luna Mexican Grill so delightful in a more formal setting? As it turns out, yes, he can.
At Mari Luna Latin Grille, Luna has taken everything that worked at Mari Luna Mexican Grill and tweaked it to make it more sophisticated, but no less comfortable. The bright pastels that illuminate the walls at the Mexican Grill translate into saturated reds and golds at the Latin Grille, and striking black and white upholstery covers plump-backed chairs (the banquettes get a tamer stripe.) The still jaw-droppingly reasonably-priced menu moves beyond traditional Mexican fare to embrace a wider swath of Latin cuisine including that of Central and South America. And the service? Ask for César and you won't regret it. Although he admitted to being relatively new to the restaurant business, the El Salvadorean native could not have been more patient and accommodating--personal, yet still efficient to an indecisive table of diners determined to have a leisurely meal. That, combined with the sleek interior and well-crafted food, makes dinner at Mari Luna Latin Grille feel like a celebratory event, even if it's only a midweek night out.
Dinner at the Latin Grille demands decisions about cocktails (caipirinha? margarita? mojito?) and appetizers, but all meals begin on a high note with complimentary oversized popovers, traditionally associated with British cooking a la Yorkshire pudding, but served here with sweet mango-papaya butter. Like any well-made combination of egg and butter, they are magic--crispy outside and eggy moist within--and set the table for good things to follow. Like empanadas salternas ($8), homey pockets tucked full of chicken, eggs, olive and peas, that were as visually pleasing as they were tasty, especially when dipped into the spicy salsa that accompanied them. Or the gambas al ajillo ($10), citrus-spiked shrimp served in a buttery bath that had the requisite buzzy zing of lime and garlic. Less thrilling were the overly fatty chunks of pork in the chicharron de puerco con yucca ($7), though the yucca fries that accompanied the pork were so good, they were ordered again as sides with one of the entrees.
Chef Luna must realize that while most people come to the Latin Grille to experience Latin American cuisine, it's still possible for a table of guests to have one diner who would prefer garlic mashed potatoes to fried plantains or savory tostones (lightly fried unripe plantains) or congri (a Cuban version of black beans and rice.) All of these, as well as a small plate of mixed vegetables, are available as one of two side orders that come with the Latin Grille's generous entrees. But if you order the paella ($21 for one), you might find yourself ignoring anything else on the table. Although the focal point of the dish was the small lobster tail balanced in the center of the delicately spiced golden rice, clams and mussels circled the rim of the plate, and scallops, shrimp, sliced chorizo, and strips of chicken breast lay buried under the surface. The order for one could have easily satisfied two people, perhaps even three. The churrasco Argentino (grilled ribeye) ($22) was similarly ample, dressed in a simple chimichurri sauce, and cooked to order. Two other meat dishes, vaca frita, a massive short rib ($19), and ropa vieja ($16), the classic Cuban dish of shredded beef in a piquant tomato sauce flavored with onions and peppers more than fulfilled any additional beef cravings, though the ropa vieja, especially, could have used something else on the plate (tortillas, perhaps?) to prevent it from being simply a huge mound of beef.
The Latin Grille also offers vegetarian options, including pinchitos parrilla ($14), a colorful plate of grilled zucchini, yellow squash, and portabella mushrooms garnished with a spicy tomato-based sauce and served over perfectly cooked quinoa, each grain separate. If you have room for dessert (and there's a good chance you won't), skip the overly sweet dulce de leche crepes ($7.50) in favor of a mild chocolate version of appealingly squishy tres leche cake ($6).
There's a lot to like about Mari Luna Latin Grille, from the sexy curve of the bar in the front lounge to the main dining room's large window into the kitchen to the valet parking out back. But most appealing is the chance to experience another side of Jaime Luna's culinary personality. Treat yourself.