At La Tesso Tana, It's You, and the Night, and the Music . . . and the Food
This location is closed
Close enough to the Lyric and the Meyerhoff for delirious fans to come carrying tenors aloft on their shoulders, La Tesso Tana has cultivated a loyal and admiring core clientele of pre-concert diners. It's the kind of place where you'd soon find your favorite dish and order it every time you come back with that other couple who has tickets on the same night.
In Italian folklore, the tesso tana was an invisible bird whose beautiful song could only be heard by true lovers. And although I totally made that up, it's an apt metaphor for this restaurant which seems destined to fly forever, though not forlornly, below the radar. It's the place (formerly Grille 58) that sits on the lower level of the bed-and-breakfast on the corner of Cathedral and Biddle streets. Its entrance lies, romantically, down a flight of exterior stairs, and down those stairs it boasts one of the city's dreamiest dining rooms, one that betrays both the building's late-19th-century origins and its reincarnation a century later--notably, a broad, surrounding strip of mirrors; above it, cream-colored, ivy-stenciled walls; and, above those, mullioned windows, which look out onto the bottom halves of passersby, like the windows in Laverne and Shirley's apartment.
We made our reservations for 8 p.m. on an evening when the Baltimore Opera was performing with a 7:30 curtain. It was an inadvertantly brilliant stroke, it turns out, as we found ourselves basking in the afterglow--at a choice corner table--of what clearly had been a successful evening for the restaurant. The room, though emptied of diners, was still full of their energy, and the staff had all of its leftover adrenaline to lavish on us.
The dinner menu, depending upon your Weltanschauung, arrives either full of possibilities or as an enumeration of horrors. Vegetarians, for instance, or those for whom the words "rich" and "butter" are anathema, might run right back up those romantic stairs. For us, the menu evoked the kind of place where Steve and Eydie would eat after opening for Sinatra: nouns like shrimp, pork, linguine, and salmon; preparations like Marsala, marinara, piccata, and scampi. This is what we wanted and this is what we ordered.
Two soups, an appetizer, and a salad came first. (The kitchen had regrettably run out of one of its signature dishes, the black and blue salad [$10], which pairs blackened steak with blue cheese.) The clear diva among these starters was a beautifully silky and smoky lima bean soup ($4.50). Line up this winner, some crusty bread (crustier than what La Tesso Tana is serving these days, preferably), and the crunchy, zingy Caesar salad ($5.50, extra anchovies 75 cents), and you've got a fine autumn supper.
The Louisiana gumbo ($6) had a mellow flavor and was generous with chicken, shrimp, crab, and lobster, but one man's mellow is another's unassertiveness--a close call but not worth missing the lima bean soup for. An appetizer of focaccia ($3.50) baked with rosemary and garlic and topped with diced sun-dried tomatoes and a plop of Parmesan, was warming and buttery, a good appetizer for sharing.
While none of the four entrées we ordered would, in and of itself, be reason for falling in love with La Tesso Tana, they were all good enough, and, if the truth be told, we were having such a grand time that the food became just another ingredient of a lovely evening. Whatever combination of amber-lit room, unobtrusive service, and quiet music it was that made us so happy, we became fatally predisposed to enjoy what we were served and to forgive a venial flaw such as overcooked zucchini.
We were sentient enough to notice the tender chicken piccata ($16), which was admired for not being smothered in its traditional sauce of lemon, wine, butter, and capers. The linguine alla Tesso Tana ($18)--nicely cooked pasta tossed generously with shrimp and lump crabmeat--was offered with a choice of sauces; the lobster brandy cream sauce, eagerly recommended by our somewhat saucy waiter, was refused in favor of a flavorful marinara, a regrettable choice only because the lobster sauce sounded so good.
The best component of the walnut-breaded catfish alla jai ($17) was its tangy light citrus butter sauce. Served over glistening greens and mouth-pleasingly golden, this entrée was a table favorite. The calves liver Christina ($15), sautéed with sweet peppers, onions, garlic, and cracked peppercorns, was zesty enough, and lustrous, but the meat itself was too tough.
La Tesso Tana doesn't seem particularly enthusiastic about its meager dessert offerings, and we weren't either, at least not on this particular night. Instead of leaving room for dessert, we wished we'd gone for that lobster sauce.
Opens 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on performance days. That's Italian for e-mail: Omnivore@citypaper.com.