Think of all the things you like about Tio Pepe. Things like the shrimp in garlic and pine nut rolls, the huge portions, the convivial diners. Now think of the things you don't like about Tio's: the wait for a table, the noise, the hauteur meted out to the underdressed, and the persistent rumors that the elite get different menus and better food than the peasants.
Now forget all that bad stuff. The Scarlett Cove Cafe, a new waterfront restaurant whose kitchen is helmed by the former Tio Pepe star chef Angel Sanz, has retained most of the good points about Baltimore's Spanish mainstay, and jettisoned the irritants. It's like Tio's without attitude.
No, the brand-new, dual-level dining rooms don't have Tio's subterranean allure, but the water view makes up for that. And, yes, you can expect to pay a lot for your dinner here, too. But you won't be displeased with the food.
Scarlett Cove's menu is more Continental than Spanish, but a number of the chef's signature dishes are here. Including, naturally, black bean soup ($3.95), which may be the best black bean soup anywhere. The flavor is so multilayered that it's difficult to describe except in such evocative but inexact terms as "sultry" or "sophisticated." If Sophia Loren were a soup, she'd be this one.
My light seasonal starter, asparagus vinaigrette ($4.50), proved to be considerably more ambitious than it sounded. Beautiful, too: the robust, perfectly cooked spears were bathed in a colorful layer of finely chopped marinated vegetables with the bite of a good dill pickle. This treatment contrasted nicely with the mellow elegance of the vegetable itself.
The shrimp with garlic ($15.75), bedded on saffron rice, proved impossible to resist, especially as it is offered here as an entree as well as an appetizer. I've had better shrimp -- these were pretty small -- but the sauce was terrific, with a deep, rich undertone that spoke of more than garlic. Brandy, perhaps? We asked, but our friendly young waiter joked that the chef would chase him around the kitchen with a carving knife if he tried to steal any recipe secrets.
My companion's choice, trout stuffed with crab ($17.95), a special, wasn't as legendary, but was even better. The trout was white and sweet, and its abundant stuffing contained a maximum of crab and just enough binder and glaze, with a lovely cheesy flavor.
One of those famous dessert rolls were too daunting after such a meal. (Not all customers are so daunted; the men dining near us each ordered a box to go of every dessert on the menu!) Flan seemed like a lighter choice. But this wasn't an easy-on-the-digestion egg custard, but a dense, intense, killer-rich mound of pure sin.
Scarlett Cove Cafe
Where: Scarlett Place, 200 S. President St.
Hours: Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Credit Cards: AE, MC, V
Features: Spanish and Continental cuisine
Non-smoking section? Yes