A Little Is Enough
At Tapas Teatro, Good Things Come in Small Packages
If I tell one more person I went to this great tapas bar and they respond, "You? You went to a topless bar?", I will scream. "Tapas," not "topless." Tapas, sometimes called little plates. Small plates. Tasting plates. Appetizers. Grazing portions. No nudity involved.
Now that I have that off my chest, let me tell you about my recent foray to the Charles Theatre for foreign film and to the adjoining Tapas Teatro (1711 N. Charles St.,  332-0110) for imaginative fare. The only thing I didn't like about this suave little bistro, opened last May by Qayum Karzai, the owner of the Helmand, and one of his former employees, Mary Ellen Massi, was the crowds of theatergoers; people overflowed the smallish bar and began draping themselves over those of us still dining. The situation was made worse by the pouring rain, which eliminated the outdoor seating. That said, C.C., me, and our dear friend from Florida, Byron, were delighted with the people, the place, and most of the food.
In tapas bars in Spain, you buy a glass of sherry or wine and help yourself to an array of snacks set out on the bar. This might include simple treats, such as olives or hard-boiled eggs, or fancier fare, like the traditional egg-and-potato omelet or rounds of fried squid. At Tapas Teatro, you start off with a little dish of mixed olives and some hearty bread. We decided to share a bottle of Spanish red wine, but you may opt for sherry, beer, or sangría.
For starters, C.C. selected a special of the day, grilled artichoke salad ($5.95), a toss of mixed greens, toasted pine nuts, mangoes, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. It was a beautiful balance of sweet and tangy, crunchy and soft. My special, the traditional cold soup gazpacho ($3.95), a purée of tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and cucumbers in a base of oil and vinegar, had the refreshing tartness that's soothing on a sweaty summer day. The bowl seemed bottomless. From the cold tapas menu, Byron chose marinated chickpeas ($3.25), fragrant with garlic and thyme, sparked by a balsamic vinaigrette. Hearty yet elegant, they were a treat for the legume fancier.
As our server was very good about keeping our bread basket filled, and as the whipped butter was so soft and spreadable, we might have managed to fill ourselves with one more small plate apiece, but for a proper review we needed more variety. Spicy garlic shrimp ($5.95) weren't particularly spicy (the "regular" variety also offered on the menu must be downright mild), but the four jumbo specimens were well-seasoned and came with a zippy cocktail sauce. Roasted potatoes ($3.95) with cilantro sour cream and a side of fresh salsa disappointed only in the serving size. C.C. thought two wedges--even two large wedges--were too few for the cost. We had to agree. Crusty, good, and gone too soon.
Byron got a bigger taste with his spicy sausages ($5.95), butterflied and grilled to release the excess grease and highlight the bold flavors, which proved spicy indeed. But the spiciest of our choices were the grilled calamari ($5.95), tender tubes in a fiery pepperoncini vinaigrette; none of us could manage more than a couple bites.
If you're looking for a larger plate, you'll do well with C.C.'s fave, the seafood paella ($7.95). The dish consisted of a few big shrimp, a couple of mussels, and a good bit of fish nested on a bed of rice seasoned with red and green peppers, with hot pepper that creeps up on you without being overwhelming.
For a sweet finish, Tapas Teatro serves pastries from East Baltimore mainstay Patisserie Poupon. We tried the mousse royale ($4.95), a fabulous macaroon crust topped with chocolate mousse and encircled by a thin chocolate shell. Chocolate and coconut, how can you miss? We also tried the cardamom vanilla ice cream atop a mix of mango, figs, and dates ($3.95). It was sensuous and rich. There's also a fresh fruit salad ($4.95) available for those with willpower. For good or ill, willpower was in short supply at our table.
It was nearing 7 o'clock. The crowd had swelled considerably, and as the rain continued unabated, more and more hungry people began crowding in around us. While in my 20s I might have found this endearing, even exciting, I couldn't bear to watch Byron get thwacked in the back of the head by one more purse. We had eaten diversely and well. How divine to walk a few steps into the Charles and settle back for a film that occupied our minds while giving our systems time to digest.
Open 5- 11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Monday.