Angel Sanz has left his extended family at Tio Pepe to become chef at the Scarlett Cove Cafe. How well does he cook in different rooms? Beautifully.
Scarlett Cove Cafe opened in February, at street level below the condominiums and offices of Scarlett Place. West of Little Italy and east of the aquarium, the cafe's an easy walk from the harbor -- a happy location, therefore, for a casual restaurant that serves first-class food at affordable prices.
The cafe's attitude is informal: Our waitress wore black and white, chic coffee-shop garb; a waiter wore shirt sleeves. The tempo was fast enough for the busy diner; the atmosphere seemed potentially hospitable to the residents of Scarlett Place, to businessmen, and to weary tourists alike. Yet a certain seriousness also sanctions romance.
Mr. Sanz may have been a Tio Pepe man, but his menu is his own. He doesn't offer suckling pigs, but includes some Spanish dishes -- sauteed chorizos ($3.95), black bean soup ($2.95), gazpacho ($2.95) and paella ($14.75), as well as a selection of Spanish desserts -- on a list that suggests a Maryland-and-the-world kitchen: raw oysters ($5.95), raw clams ($5.25), steamed mussels ($5.25), potato skins Scarlett ($4.95), Caesar salad ($3.95), a variety of pastas, lamb chops ($19.95), several beef and veal dishes, including prime filet mignon ($19.25), and a number of seafood dishes, including crab cakes ($16.75).
I tend to think of bread as a good divining rod, but our basket of fluffy standard white bread couldn't have been less predictive. With our appetizers, we knew we were somewhere special. We'd ordered Mediterranean seafood soup ($4.50), shrimp in garlic sauce ($6.75) and black bean soup ($2.95), and we liked all three.
While the seafood soup looked like standard Maryland fare -- reddish, unthickened, and peppered with dried herb -- it turned out to be a soup worth savoring to the bottom of its good-sized bowl. We found depth of flavor and interest in the broth, the carrots and peas tasted like the real articles, and a generous quantity of delicious seafood contributed varying textures: fin fish, shrimp, scallops, crab and mussels.
The small, firm shrimp in their dark, intense garlic sauce were fresh and attractive, while the black bean soup surpassed my memories of the black bean soup I've loved at Tio Pepe. Flavors were sweetly, deeply dark, like chocolate, molten under spoonings of sticky white rice and fine-sliced onion, which together offered an elegant and soothing contrast.
Our entrees were also excellent. Too often paella means a heap of rice with a bit of this and that thrown in. Mr. Sanz's paella Valenciana was paella worthy of the name, its rice richly flavored with the meats and aromatics gracing it. It wasn't fatty and it didn't sate. Coins of chorizo, clams and mussels in their shells, chicken, green peas, slices of red pepper and onion, all stirred abundantly through the rice, gave the paella a treasure-hunt character. Can Mr. Sanz make such magical fare every night? If it turns out he does, we're all in luck.
We ordered red snapper, forgetting there were two red snappers on the menu. The fancier one we were curious about came in a fish sauce with clams, mussels, shrimp, asparagus, green peas and a boiled egg ($17.75). What we received, however, was probably the broiled red snapper with mushrooms ($14.75), though without mushrooms. Ah, but it was perfectly cooked and sauced, and appetizingly, gloriously layered with buttered bread crumbs mixed with mustard.
Sirloin steak pizzaiola ($19.95) heaped fresh-sauteed onions, red peppers and green peppers over a very large, very thick, very pink and tender piece of beef. On both the red snapper and the steak plates, green peas were served to the side -- the bright, large, round green peas marketed frozen and not often served in restaurants. Generally, I prefer fresh vegetables, but these had been handled well from package to table.
From a relatively short, one-page wine list we chose a Sterling sauvignon blanc ($15) and were not disappointed by it. We also tried an unimpressive glass of the house Liberty School cabernet sauvignon.
Our desserts were a Tio Pepe-style rolled pine nut cake ($3.75) and a pear in champagne sauce ($2.75). A gummy custard over the top of the cake lacked finesse, but the crisp, toasted, candied pine nuts across the top were inspired, and so much sassier than simple pine nuts. The more exquisite sweet, however, was a cool poached pear in spice, set in a refined, wine-and-honey-tasting light syrup.
Service was cheerful and competent. Wednesdays to Sundays, expect electronic keyboard music.
Next: Syrumie Cafe
Scarlett Cove Cafe, 200 S. President St., 783-8760
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, to 11:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Continental cuisine
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes