In the Raw
A Harbor East restaurant focuses on raw and Nuevo Latino offerings
Everything about Talara screams fun. The colorful dining room pulsates with rainbow stripes of neon, grass-green tables, and large vivid paintings of a pueblo scene or a couple dancing a tango. Patrons dress to impress while indulging in a menu of cocktails that beg for tiny umbrellas, and the sound system plays the kind of Latin music that makes you want to dance in your chair, perfect for the salsa lessons the restaurant hosts every Monday night.
Still, how much you enjoy Talara depends little on your prowess on the dance floor and largely on how much you embrace the self-proclaimed South Beach vibe and how well you pick through the restaurant's Nuevo Latino offerings, which are numerous.
The best deals come during the 4-7 p.m. happy hour Monday through Thursday (and 10 p.m.%u20131 a.m. Friday and Saturday) where a handful of Latin American cocktails, (including a classic mojito and a caipirinha), wines, and tapas sell for $5, and select beers are a very reasonable $3.
Outside of this menu, prices basically double (some come close to tripling), often for the same items, and while $10 to $14 per dish isn't outrageous, it's easy to get caught up in sampling and forget that those prices are for small plate, tapas -sized portions, and that they add up quickly.
The restaurant also offers a seven-course chef's choice tasting menu of ceviche and tapas, and at $38, this seems a better deal than the $28 prix fixe consisting of a ceviche, a small paella or tapas, and a salad. And steer clear of the $12 blood orange margarita that is seriously lacking blood orange juice.
Talara prides itself on being "raw with a twist," but it's easy to avoid the uncooked if that's not your thing. There's as much, if not more, cooked food on the menu than there is raw, and even the seafood in the ceviche, which takes up only a portion of the menu, can be ordered raw or cooked and prepared one of seven ways, from traditional with lime juice, jalapeño, and cilantro to a seared version with roasted garlic and pickled ginger.
A curried tropical fruit ceviche made with shrimp ($5/$9) appears on the happy hour menu, and it's a pleasant introduction to some of the well-made items coming out of the kitchen. The very fresh shrimp boast a gentle firmness and plays nicely with the bits of mango, red onion, jalapeño, and cilantro, offering a satisfying sweet-savory buzz. Also impressive were the plump scallops ($5) wrapped in the thinnest shaving of chorizo, a clever take on the often-seen bacon-wrapped scallops. But what made the dish was the feather-light mound of fluffy corn polenta which we were happy to see show up again on other plates.
Non-seafood dishes were more erratic. The inventive tres sopas ($8), which change daily, included a smooth potato soup blended with plantain, a cherry-beet gazpacho which strayed to the side of sweetness (something another diner liked, though I didn't), and a deeply spicy, cumin-accented shrimp bisque. I would take the chance and order soup again whatever the choices.
Peruvian-style meatballs ($5) stayed moist in their compact black kettle, their accompanying tomato sauce boasting a spicy kick, but chicken tostadas ($5) were simply dry and nearly tasteless. And while the idea of a mini paella appeals, the overpriced filet mignon a la plancha version ($14) was little more than slices of unremarkable medium rare beef and portobello mushroom over a tiny cast iron skillet of rice. The pork ficelle ($10) looked equally unpromising, a fistful of pulled pork blanketed with a little manchego, but the meat was meltingly tender and full-flavored.
Like its dining room and patrons, Talara's food is done up stylishly on rectangular white china that often looks larger than it is based on the placement of the food; so a less than luscious tres leches cake ($7) took up only the corner of a dish, making the china appear platter-sized and the cake, tiny. An equally small Mexican flourless chocolate torte spiced with cinnamon ($8) crumbled dryly under the fork, leaving us annoyingly grateful there was only a small portion of it. And while some folks might be overwhelmed by the rum in the Jamaican rum tiramisu ($8), we enjoyed its boozy decadence.
What we least enjoyed at Talara, however, was the service--not the super-efficient men and women who brought our orders to the table with lightning speed, but the casual-to-the-point-of-unprofessional server who nearly planted herself at our table as she recited her welcome spiel in a bored, listless tone and throughout the meal shared odd bits of inappropriate personal information unbidden. Not having a reservation, even if you arrive near the start of a mid-week happy hour, can also cause the host to grimace, even if he later gives you the choice of several tables.
Talara offers some decent, though not extraordinary, food, in an atmosphere uncommon to Baltimore, and I suspect its Harbor East location will draw tourists and young professionals alike, at least until the novelty wears off. If your inner Marc Anthony is yearning for a fiesta, your mojito is waiting.