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Omnivore

Mixed Plates

New Federal Hill Tapas Place Offers Neatly Arranged Little Surprises and Disappointments


Christopher Myers

Sky Lounge Tango Tapas

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 5/7/2003

Sky Lounge/Tango Tapas has been open for a few months now in Federal Hill, across from Cross Street Market. It occupies culinary hallowed ground in Baltimore, the space where Stall 1043 ignited a momentous era of deadly serious nouvelle cuisine in the early 1980s. Much later came No Way José Café, which has moved into new quarters across the tiny alley known as Marshall Street.

Too soon to tell, really, whether Baltimore is wholly embracing this tapas/drinking/dancing trend, but, I'm all for it, at least in concept. After passing by bar after bar on Cross Street, each one packed with casting candidates for reality dating programs, Tango Tapas appears like an oasis of grace and calm. The bar at the entrance is standard-issue Federal Hill, but beyond it, the new tenants have created a spacious and inviting lounge area for the consumption of its tapas menu. (Up the stairs lies a salsa lounge.) Along each side wall runs a long, superwide leather sofa and a row of square knee-high tables. Diners facing the sofa sit on ottomans, and for those who don't do yoga, the lack of back support on either sofa or ottoman is something to consider. We liked this airy, attractive space--I'll call it accessible swank--and we were able to chat easily over the cheering Spanish music.

We unwound with a few glasses of the house sangría ($5 glass, $20 pitcher), which sparked a small disagreement--one of us found it way too sweet; the others found it decent but just. A large--and silly--martini selection and a well-assembled beer list are available, too.

The menu comprises about a half dozen each cold and hot tapas--some traditional, some updates--and a paella entrée. Not a huge menu, but nearly everything tempted us. We passed on the lobster ceviche ($8) and (reluctantly) a salad of cured foie gras, duck prosciutto, roasted pear, and Bibb lettuce ($10). The food we did try fell into that limitless middle ground between the very good and the very bad. We didn't want to send anything back; on the other hand, nothing sent us. The relationship between portion size and price at Tango Tapas felt comparable to the area's upscale tapas joints, and if you've adjusted your sights to small plates elsewhere, you should have no problem here.

The inevitable ahi tuna tartare ($9) here is cubed, shaped into a squat little column, and topped with refreshing slivers of ripe avocado. A zippy wasabi miso vinaigrette is there for dipping, but where were the billed baby greens? A nice beginning, though, and recommended.

Next came one of the evening's weak sisters, a plate of croquettes filled with lump crab and caramelized onion ($7). It just wasn't much of anything memorable, neither chicly new nor rustically robust. One of the three smallish croquettes languished for a good long while before one of us indifferently finished it off. The accompanying herb aioli was assertively garlicky, though, and a good sop for the gratis bread.

A cheese and olive plate ($7) consisted this evening of wedges of manchego, drunken goat (a cheese soaked in wine), and (warning!) superstinky Cabrales. The cheeses were laid out on delicious garlic toast points and surrounded by small black and green olives. All fine, but a little more artfulness wouldn't hurt this plate. (And I'm not kidding, Cabrales tastes like feet--good feet, but still.)

Like the sangría, our paella ($18) received mixed reviews among our foursome. It had some defending the pleasing texture and the handling of the lobster, shrimp, scallops, and chorizo against charges of general blandness. A close call, but the generous portion size nudged it into the winning column.

The best thing we tasted was the Thai-style steak salad with sweet-spicy vinaigrette ($9). Not the steak, which was undermarinated and lacking any Thai flavors we could name, but the fabulous buttery green salad, dressed with a superior vinaigrette. What a nice surprise.

We tried both of the available dessert items--a terrific, custardy crème brúlée ($4), and a flavor-packed Moulton chocolate cake ($6) that looked fresh out of an Easy-Bake oven. (What does Moulton refer to? I don't know, but my friend's theory about the bicycle designer Alex Moulton seems wobbly.)

Tapas are served until 10:30 p.m., when DJs begin spinning in the upstairs salsa lounge, which has a small Plexiglas dance area cut into the floor. Because we came on a school night, we didn't stay around long enough to dance or to see just what, if anything, could be seen through that floor from the dining room below.

Small is the new black: omnivore@citypaper.com.

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