Good Dining Rears its Head at The Inner Harbor
Whenever out-of-towners ask me for restaurant recommendations in Baltimore, I always have plenty of ideas. Unfortunately, the visitors usually aren't interested in them--because, to many outsiders, the city consists of the Inner Harbor and not one block beyond. Forget even easily accessed, eatery-laden neighborhoods like Fells Point or Federal Hill. These folks want to eat downtown, period.
When pressed, I'll recommend McCormick & Schmick's (pretty good for a chain), but trying to think of decent dining in the immediate vicinity of Harborplace has always given me a headache. Don't even talk to me about Little Italy--if you gotta go into the spaghetti ghetto, you're going in without me, paesan'.
So Steve de Castro's new-ish (opened in August of last year) restaurant, the Babalu Grill (Power Plant Live, 32 Market Place,  234-9898), comes as a real relief. De Castro also owns the local Ruth's Chris Steak House franchise, but at the Babalu Grill he has put his personal stamp on the operation, to reflect his own Cuban heritage--many of the traditional dishes come from family recipes. And while a straight-up Cuban restaurant alone would have been a welcome addition to the dining scene, de Castro has added embellishments to the standards, with excellent results. Finally, there's interesting and consistently good food right at the harbor.
Unless you are under legal drinking age, you have driving to do, or you have a note from your doctor, I forbid you to eat at Babalu without ordering a mojito, the Cuban cocktail of fresh lime and sugar-cane juices, mixed with mint leaves, soda, and rum. The bar mixes two varieties (both $6), the mojito de Castro and the mojito suave--the suave, true to its name, uses Bacardi Limon rum for a barely sweet, citrus-tinged flavor, while the Cruzan Junkanu-powered de Castro is more astringent. Each glass comes with a plastic mermaid perched on the rim (yours to keep); by the end of the evening, our table appeared to be hosting some miniature Olympic synchronized-swimming event.
Appetizers are many and varied, and you could have a terrific dinner simply by ordering a batch of small plates. The generous combination platter ($14) easily feeds two or three and is a good place to begin exploring Cuban street snacks. Tostones rellenos came with a nuevo twist: The chile-powered filling of a sofrito of peppers and onions with shrimp or chicken (there was one of each) came in a wee basket fashioned from fried green plantains. Even better was the non-nuevo empanada, a flaky turnover stuffed with sweet, pungent picadillo (Cuban beef hash). Two croquettes were golden, crisp orbs of fluffy potato, one (croqueta de jamón) filled with salty ham, the other (papa rellena) with more picadillo. The tamal (Cuban tamale) was the only disappointment--the masa dough was undercooked and the roast pork filling underseasoned. Although they might have acted as flavor savors, both the promised avocado and mango salsa as well as the "special cilantro mojo" sauce were missing in action.
The ceviche mixto del mar ($9), another appetizer, was a nicely updated take on the lime-marinated seafood dish. Habanero pepper was insinuated into the mix of shrimp, scallops, and squid, adding a subtle heat that contrasted wonderfully with the fresh citrus and cilantro flavors. The ceviche went particularly well with the basket of crunchy tostones (sliced, fried green plantains) that the Babalu Grill's smooth, guayabera-clad waiters bring instead of bread.
It was difficult to resist classic Cuban dishes such as arroz con pollo ($14) and ropa vieja ($14), but I was drawn to the pargo a la santiagera (market price, $19 on this visit). An entire red snapper, marinated in rum and then fried, swam in a glorious sauce with tomatoes, capers, and lime. The moist, meaty fish was perfect, and measured a good 12 inches from head to tail. Lechon asado al Babalu ($16), a house special entrée, was also delicious--tender slices of pork in a richly flavored mojo criollo (Creole garlic sauce), served with steamed yucca. (Talented as the Babalu Grill's kitchen may be, even it can't impart much flavor to this starchy, resolutely bland Latino staple food.) Nearly every entrée comes with congri, spice-scented Cuban black beans and rice, and it is testimony to the kitchen's attention to detail that even this oft-neglected side dish was excellent.
Desserts are not an emphasized aspect of Latino cooking, but inventive Babalu comes through with some classics--arroz con leche ($4), flan ($4)--as well as a coconut crème brúlée ($4) and bread pudding in coconut rum sauce ($4). I very much enjoyed the flan, with its intensely flavored caramel sauce, but was puzzled as to why it came with a dollop of whipped cream and maraschino cherries--that's painting the lily, guys. A guava cheesecake ($5) offered unusual flavor and texture, the richness of the grainy cream-cheese filling offset by the tart-sweet gobbets of guava and drizzled mango sauce.
Open Monday-Wednesday 5-10 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. Me gusta beber pantalones enorme con queso!: Dishthis@hotmail.com