This location is closed
As you’ve heard by now, Gardel’s is the new tango-themed restaurant and supper club housed in what was all too briefly the headquarters of the Baltimore City Life Museums. That’s the building with the glowing cast-iron facade that you see when you’re stuck in traffic on President Street. Gardel’s is a family affair, and while the older generation of the Alonso clan is apparently living out its tango dreams (they named it for Argentina’s “King of Tango,” Carlos Gardel), it’s the younger generation—sons James, Johnny, and Jason Alonso—that’s determined to establish in this burgeoning neighborhood an outpost of cosmopolitanism. The unexpected thing is that it just might work.
The affection for tango is sincere, and the space can easily accommodate a warehouse full of sweaty, flirtatious enthusiasts. Only the first of three museum-sized floors is currently in use for dinner, and it’s stupendously sexy. There’s a lot to look at in the ruby-hued space, like stained-glass lamps suspended from the high ceiling and an Evita-ready second-story DJ booth.
If anything, it’s overwhelming. I went on a weeknight, and it felt queer sitting with my friends in the mammoth room, as though we were the only passengers on a cruise ship who hadn’t taken ill. On a weekend, it may feel more like the supper club that Gardel’s wants to be. But then there’s the problem of focus.
The food is sensuous, inventive, and highly recommended, but what’s missing is the all-seeing eye, the presence of a born restaurateur, the maniac who screams at the staff but steps in when needed, and for whom the sight of a dirty ashtray or a table of five waiting impatiently for their bill is an abhorrence. It’s not so much a skill set as a state of mind, and someone at Gardel’s needs to develop it.
Because the food deserves it. The ingredients are earthy, meaty, often humble, with the frequent appearance of New World staples—chayote, plantain, yucca. French technique and a risk-taking attitude are brought to bear, too, and the only stumbles came from dishes that had one too many things going on. Compositions with three notes worked better than those with four, or seven. Gardel’s take on the classic Argentine grill, the parilladda ($29), for instance, featured adroitly grilled prime meats—pink lamb, hefty veal shanks, flank steak—and sweet grilled yucca, but the goat cheese flan was overpoweringly garlicky and the three accompanying sauces were two too many. The house-proud chimichurri was all we needed.
The amazingly juicy pan-roasted breast of free-range chicken ($19) was excellent, though. The sliced breast, coated with a simply but assertively seasoned coating, arrived on a mattress of velvety corn porridge with a ratatouille of autumn vegetables. Meanwhile, the wood-fired salmon ($21), accompanied by two habanero corn pancakes, played like a tribute to autumn flavors and colors. We unanimously declared the crispy-skinned, just-fatty-enough roasted breast of duck ($25) perfect, and we all fought for second bites of its flattering friends, pecorino Romano risotto cakes and snappy haricot verts. Only some starchy plantain noquis (the fourth note, think gnocchi) detracted from a handsome flank-steak platter ($26), which was otherwise well-served by crisp asparagus and balsamic-laced cipollini onions.
Likewise, plating our shared appetizers together ultimately diminished them all. It was hard to tell what belonged to what. But we liked best the shredded duck flautas ($10), served with pan-roasted sweet potatoes, plantains, and stewed dates. A ceviche ($12) of Gulf shrimp, jumbo lump crabmeat, and scallops, though, didn’t play well with others. And a fondue of Brazilian prawn and scallion ($14) wasn’t a fondue as we know it—more like an arrangement of stuff—and while the prawns were topnotch, they got lost in the mix.
We ran up our bill—it was an expensive evening—with two bottles of decently priced Malbec. And since our stomachs were filled with plenty of starch and meat, we passed on the menu of homemade desserts—a mango bread pudding with bittersweet chocolate, a chocolate flan with plantain fritters and candied tangerine.
In the end, Gardel’s kitchen is so talented that it seems a shame to have any distractions from its cuisine—this is not your usual club food. But as bad as it’d be for diners to be distracted, it’s even worse when the attentions of the management are divided. Keep focus, folks, and get your hands dirty.