A small plates restaurant impresses
It's tempting to think that the last thing Baltimore needs is another tapas restaurant. More small plates and big prices. It's enough to make a body scream, "Super-size me!" (Well, maybe not quite.) Still, when tapas are done right, they are a real treat. And Centro Tapas Bar does a lot right. No generic small plates here. Rather, this is reminiscent of the real thing, aka traditional Spanish-style tapas and drink, fairly authentic and very welcome.
Take Centro's wine list, exclusively made up of well chosen Spanish and South American wines (and a devilishly dark, syrupy sangria). Very few restaurants offer four sparkling wines by the glass; fewer still would include a fruity, sparkling pinot noir and a bubbly rosé, all from the Penedes. The still rosé at Centro is a properly fresh 2009 Txakoli from Spain's Basque region, and four sherries, from bone dry manzanilla to raisin-y Pedro Ximenez styles, are represented. The beer list, understandably, is decidedly more international.
This attention to detail is part of Centro's appeal, as is the multitude of choices of what to eat. Although some folks might want to pass over the embutidos (charcuterie), quesos (cheeses), and tapas de la barra (counter tapas) and dive right into the tapas frias y calientes, this would be a serious mistake. The counter tapas ($3 each or 3 for $7), many stored in large, glass jars on the kitchen's counter near the restaurant's entrance, are compulsive nibbles. I watched as the same hands reached again and again for the plate of salty Marcona almonds; crunchy house-pickled electric-green guindilla peppers; and house-marinated olives tossed with tiny scraps of orange peel. Wild mushroom conserve, as well as pickled garlic and white anchovies, are other counter tapas choices. Next time, I'd try them all.
With the exception of three raciones (larger portions) consisting of a steak and two versions of paella, the rest of Centro's menu is made up of hot and cold tapas, like the traditional tortilla ($5), two small slices of hearty potato and onion bound together with egg, and espinacas salteadas ($6), fresh spinach sautéed with chickpeas, sweetened slightly by the addition of tiny bits of dates. A duo of chicken and ham croquettes ($5) offers more comfort food fulfillment, as does a plate of yucca frita ($5), crispy batons of yucca root, pale as French fries and served with a cilantro-heavy green mojo.
Some tapas restaurants play it safe with lots of straight ahead shellfish and meat preparations, and Centro dutifully serves shrimp in garlic sauce and lamb meatballs. But they also step into less traveled territory with sautéed baby squid in its own ink, as well as higaditos de pollo ($7), a generous helping of crispy chicken livers cloaked in a tangy sauce spiked with tamarind and pasilla peppers served over grits. One of the evening's specials also included nicely cooked baby octopus ($7), tender and not rubbery, over "smashed" potatoes.
But wait. There's more. Like arepa mechada ($8), the Venezuelan-style savory pulled oxtail meat, piled high on a corn masa cake and topped with a drippy fried egg, messy and richly good. Or pimientos del piquillos rellenos ($7), a portion of red peppers, roasted sweet and bright red, stuffed with mushrooms and drizzled with a pearly cava cream sauce--small, but pleasant. Our table split on the patatas bravas ($5), with some folks (me) finding the fried potatoes both too salty and too sweet, and others savoring the splash of almond extract that gave the almond aioli a floral, almost vanilla cast. It's a move away from tradition that I found off-putting rather than innovative, something that some folks (but not me) might feel about Centro's interior, which turns the formerly bright Bicycle space into a warren of gunmetal gray rooms with minimal decoration and the occasional couch and coffee table.
Some will also balk at the size of some tapas, which as tradition dictates are small, with some (like the yucca and the patatas bravas) smaller than others (say, the chicken livers). This is a reasonable quibble, especially for Americans who tend to eat tapas as dinner rather than bar snacks, and particularly when the bill racks up and the portions feel less share-able. Still, there are enough pluses, including the prompt (if slightly inexperienced) service, a lighter-than-light cinco leches cake ($6), and a plate of crispy churros ($6), to turn an evening into a fiesta.