Hacha's Deep Sea Grille, 2701 N. Charles St., (410) 235-7675. Open for lunch Mondays to Fridays, for dinner Tuesdays to Sundays. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: yes.
Nine months ago Hacha's Deep Sea Grille opened in what up to now has been a doomed space: the former Red Cross building on Charles Street. Benny Gordon of 2110 tried to transplant his popular country French restaurant there and failed. He moved back to his former location and new owners took over Chez Charles, but they didn't last either.
The problem is that there's no ready-made audience for restaurant there -- not a lot of office buildings around for lunch business, nothing to draw people to the area at dinner time except the restaurant itself. And parking seems to be a problem, because people don't realize there's a lot in back.
It's the kind of place I usually avoid. If the food isn't good, I hate to be the one to drive the last nail in the coffin. And, good or bad, a place like this might well close between the time I eat there and the Sunday the review appears in the paper.
I ended up having dinner at Hacha's for one reason only: I heard that Angel Sanz, originally of Tio Pepe, was now running the kitchen. Mr. Sanz has fans around the area, and several readers had called to ask what had happened to him after he left Tio Pepe for the Scarlett Cove Cafe, and then left the Scarlett Cove Cafe.
Our dinner there, I should say at the outset, was as unsettling as you might imagine when you're literally the only people in the dining room of a reasonably swank restaurant. (Two more customers did arrive just as we were leaving.) By rights any place this empty on a Tuesday night should be cutting corners all over the place. But the surprising thing is that our meal was excellent in almost every respect.
You have to accept the fact that this is yet another Tio Pepspinoff, with shrimp in garlic sauce a specialty, along with paella Valenciana, spinach with grapes and pine nuts, black bean soup, sangria and, of course, pine nut roll cake for dessert.
Chef Sanz's gazpacho ($3.25) is as good as any around, the vegetable puree silky, fresh-tasting, ice cold and sparked with bits of chopped vegetables and still-crisp croutons. Or start with another dish I seem to remember from Tio Pepe, now called Deep Sea clams ($7.50). Oddly enough, no clams are involved -- as the waitress warned us in advance. The clam shells were piled high with snowy lumps of back fin and finished with a smooth, buttery champagne sauce. It was more crab than most restaurants serve you as a main course. For a lighter beginning, the chilled, sweetly fresh mussels on the half shell ($4.25) had a sharp and aromatic vinaigrette filled with minced vegetables and olives.
Hacha's bills itself as a seafood restaurant, not a Spanish one, sthere are dishes on the menu like the Deep Sea treasure ($18.95). Here was the freshest of fillets -- this evening orange roughy -- broiled with a slight golden crust, tender and moist inside. This was enough for anyone's dinner, but a plump little crab cake nestled near it, along with three enormous, buttery shrimp, succulent scallops and two clams casino delicately topped with bread crumbs and a curl of crunchy bacon. If all this wasn't enough, it was accompanied by just-tender fresh green beans -- one of the best fresh vegetables I've had in a restaurant recently -- and a stuffed potato (which was a little lumpy for my taste).
For seafood with a Spanish flavor, try red snapper a la Vasca ($16.95), another impeccably prepared fillet. It was bathed in a mild, enticing fish sauce prettily decorated with shellfish, bright green peas, fresh baby asparagus spears and quarters of hard-boiled egg. A special called Deep Sea chicken ($14.95) -- the names, if not the cooking, could be a bit more inventive -- involved two pieces of boneless breast of chicken sandwiching crab meat. An exceptionally well-seasoned Marsala wine sauce, dotted with fresh sauteed mushrooms, glazed the tender white meat.
Our meal ended with handsome roll cakes, pine nut and chocolate, and a delicate flan. The one false note was the whipped topping, which tasted artificial and too sweet. The flan would have been better plain anyway.
The man in the kitchen is clearly no slouch. The hostess and our waitress -- the only waitress that evening -- are related to the owner; they have a stake in making your visit as pleasant as possible and do so in a homey sort of way. The dining rooms, if not elegant, are pretty and comfortable, with lace curtains and flowery accents throughout. So why isn't Hacha's doing better?
I suppose because there's no getting around the fact that the evening wasn't very festive. In fact, it was downright lonely. And these days I'm not sure that festive isn't every bit as important as a well-broiled crab cake when you're spending this kind of money to eat out.
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