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Omnivore

Trust in Tapas

Small Plates, No Big Deal


Christopher Myers

Red Tapas

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 3/12/2003

From 5 to 10 p.m., five nights a week, the first floor of the Redwood Trust nightclub is converted into Red Tapas (Calvert and Redwood streets, [410] 539-1330), a separately owned and operated restaurant. Each night, before the nightclub crowd comes in, Red Tapas' tables and chairs are removed and the black-clad staff grab their coats and leave, just minutes before the disco ball starts spinning over the dance floor. It's a pretty weird setup, kind of like a fairy tale--the Enchanted Café--and, on a recent Sunday evening visit, we found the sheer implausibility of the whole enterprise more interesting than anything we ate or drank.

Red Tapas is the first restaurant opened by Chef's Expressions, a local catering firm with an impressive roster of clients. The impulse for a caterer to open a restaurant is natural enough, and sometimes it works--think of Sascha Wolhandler's still-sizzling namesake joint--and what shines through at Red Tapas, above all, is professionalism, experience, and a certain earnestness about the enterprise.

And the exuberantly dramatic interior of the beautifully restored Redwood Trust, with its 60-foot, coffered Beaux Arts ceiling, must have been irresistible to an imaginative restaurateur, too--it certainly inspired my wedding-planning friends. The marvelous renovation is worth seeing, and if you don't love the nightlife, a visit to Red Tapas might be your best chance to take in this architectural gem.

Dramatic space, experienced professionals--so, what's gone wrong here? Because there is something that's not quite cricket about Red Tapas, more on the macro, big-picture level than on the level of food quality.

Red Tapas offers a menu of some two dozen tapas plates, and it should come as no surprise that the portions are deliberately and decidedly small. That's the idea behind tapas, which originated in Spain, where friends gather any time of day in neighborhood spots to drink and delight themselves with savory and flavorful small plates of inexpensive food. Red Tapas has taken the tapas experience and wrought significant changes, shifting the menu from such typically Spanish offerings as chorizo and mussels to a kind of universal fusion--again fair enough--and seriously upping the prices. The prices haven't crossed over into insane territory but are high enough to discourage the kind of casual, serendipitous approach that the printed menu encourages: "We suggest that you choose two different selections to begin, and then continue choosing until you are satisfied."

Our party of five obediently chose two tapas each. Among the first group, the decided favorite was a good-sized fillet of espresso-coated beef ($8.95), cooked to a gorgeous and buttery rareness, full of earthy flavor. The menu's description of lobster burritos ($12.95) neglected to mention the presence of mushrooms, which overwhelmed the lobster flavor and distracted from the crispy, flavorful burrito shell. A salad of center-cut greens and bacon-wrapped scallops ($7.95) was handsomely presented, but the bacon was a little too fatty and the scallops a bit tough. Wild forest mushrooms ($4.95) were served in a ruby-red martini glass (a presentation teetering on trite) with accompanying pita chips. Although my friend enjoyed the mushrooms' flavor, she lost interest after the first few bites. A bowl of acorn squash soup ($5.95) was fine but lacked the kind of innovation or surprise that would make you distinguish it in your mind's palate from any other acorn squash soup you've ever had.

The second round of tapas brought more of this adroitly prepared and handsomely presented, but somehow unexceptional, food. In general order of pleasure-giving, a good chunk of smoked salmon tartare ($9.95) was served over a potato pancake with crème fraîche, an elegant and nifty update of a delicatessen combo; 40-clove garlic chicken ($7.95), served with onion marmalade over a black olive crisp, was a simple and straightforward success; poached halibut ($8.95), served with leeks in a ceramic seashell, was tender and mellow but hobbled by a too-garlicky champagne sauce. Less successful were a barbecue pork taco ($7.95), which was both inelegant and zestless, and an anemic-looking presentation of roasted asparagus with Mayan onions ($5.95).

I give Red Tapas a lot of points for effort. I think I see what it's attempting here, but by trying to rise to the ridiculous heights suggested by Redwood Trust's outsized, dramatic interior, Red Tapas unfortunately comes up short one too many times. If, however, everything succeeded at the level of the best dessert, a molten chocolate cake with gray sea salt and vanilla-bean ice cream ($9.50), they'd have to bring out the velvet ropes to manage the crowd.

Dancing on the ceiling: omnivore@citypaper.com.

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