A Spanish-Mexican charmer, from tapas to flan

July 08, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

It would be foolish to start a meal at Jalapeno with anything other than the garlic shrimp. Gambas al ajillo, the menu says, are large shrimp sauteed in olive oil with garlic, tomatoes and a touch of dry sherry. But that sounds too simple for the incredibly sophisticated flavor of this dish. It was our favorite tapa at this new restaurant that specializes in Spanish and Mexican cuisine.

Perfectly cooked shrimp arrived in a delicately rich sauce with just the right amount of heat and herbs. When the shrimp were gone, we finished what was left of the sauce with good, crusty rolls.

According to the menu, the garlic shrimp are Gonzalo's favorite, too. That would be Gonzalo Fernandez, who opened the restaurant in May with his partner, Alberto Serrano. The atmosphere here is charming, with murals splashed across tan walls, painted ivy curling around archways and candles mounted on tall iron stands.

Fernandez greets parties at the door, and often during busy times, he turns people away with a smile and the advice to come back a little later. Reservations are suggested at this small restaurant, even midweek.

We began our meal with a round of tapas, the little dishes of Spain. There's a full page of them on the dinner menu, including fresh jalapenos, stuffed with a filling of moist chicken, herbs and tomato, then breaded and fried. They were milder than we expected and certainly fresher tasting than the jalapeno poppers on barroom menus.

Another surprise: Tiny tamales filled with spicy chicken had just the thinnest outer coating of soft corn masa. They were completely unlike the mushy, often greasy, tamales I've had in the past, and we loved the white corn salsa served with them.

Less successful were two ribs of lamb. Tender but not particularly flavorful, they were served on a mound of seasoned smashed potatoes called papas con rajas. The whole seemed more of a mini-dinner than a tantalizing pre-dinner bite.

For many, paella Valenciana is synonymous with Spanish food. Jalapeno's version had lovely concentrated flavors of seafood and chorizo in its saffron rice. But the mussels were filled with grit and chunks of boneless chicken were dry. A better choice from the Spanish side of the menu is the whole rockfish, seared with herbs and olive oil on a flat grill and then finished in the oven to bring out the nutty sweetness of the fish. It was skillfully filleted at our table and served with saffron rice and slivered carrots.

There was unevenness on the Mexican side of the menu, too. We loved the inspired take on chili relleno -- a fresh poblano chili stuffed with a massive filling of fresh, shredded chicken and bathed in spicy-hot tomatillo sauce. The pepper was still firm, coated just barely in batter and not at all greasy. But our chicken mole tasted like a mistake. Had someone burned the chocolate in the sauce? It tasted bitter and didn't have the wonderfully complex layers of flavor I've come to expect in this Mexican classic. I contented myself instead with the pool of velvety black beans on my plate.

The staff at Jalapeno may need a little time to work out some problems, including fine-tuning service when the restaurant is at its busiest. But the restaurant's appeal is hard to deny, especially when there's food as good as the garlic shrimp.

Just as those shrimp are a must as a starter, the flan is essential for dessert. Sure, there's luscious homemade butterscotch sauce on ice cream in a tortilla cup, and a heady mix of nutmeg and spice in the firm bread pudding. But the creamy flan with fragrant orange caramel sauce strikes just the right balance -- it's not too rich or sweet.

Want to suggest a restaurant for reviewing? We welcome your input. Send e-mail to: kathhigham@aol.com or write to Kathryn Higham, Newsroom-Fifth Floor, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Jalapeno

85 Forest Drive, Forest Plaza Shopping Center, Parole

410-266-7580

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$7.50; entrees, $8.50-$17

Food: ***

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 07/08/99

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