Little Plates, Big Flavors

In and around Baltimore, many restaurants have elevated tapas to an art.

Focus On Dining

August 21, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

When the tapas restaurant La Tasca opens later this year in Harborplace, it will be the newest example of a trend that's been around long enough to be no longer a fad. As traditional restaurant entrees have gotten larger and more expensive, people have turned to these small plates -- more than an appetizer, less than a main course -- as an alternative.

What's more, some of the best cuisine in the city is coming out of tapas-bar kitchens.

Although, strictly speaking, tapas are Spanish, any small serving that goes well with a glass of wine will do. You'll find that many area eating places have added tapas -- under one name or another -- to their offerings. In fact, one of Baltimore's premier restaurants, Charleston, has just changed its menu to a prix fixe composed of multiple tiny courses.

Here are 10 places where the plates are small but the pleasure is large. Be careful, though. It's easy to run up the bill as you order yet another dish of these delicious tidbits.

Iron Bridge Wine Co.

10435 Route 108, Columbia, 410-997-3456

If the Iron Bridge were just a wine bar with munchies, it would be worth a visit. But the munchies turn out to be world-class, California-style small plates with Pacific Rim and Mediterranean overtones. Lately the kitchen has been experimenting with Southern-accented dishes like grilled pork tenderloin with smoked gouda grits. Success has meant expansion, and as of Sept. 1, the wine bar will open its enclosed patio with 30 more seats.

Try this: The "grilled cheese," a small wheel of grilled Brie served with a blueberry compote and baguette.

Ixia

518 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon, 410-727-1800

Just having a martini here will make you feel deliciously wicked. Ixia's global fusion food is as startlingly original as the cutting-edge, theatrical decor. The small plates range from comparatively simple (beef carpaccio) to the wildly extravagant (foie gras with port and chocolate).

Try this: Surprise. No matter how trendy Ixia seems, customers love the lobster and crab mac 'n' cheese.

Joy America

800 Key Highway, Federal Hill, 410-244-6500

This full-fledged restaurant's imaginative Latino-Caribbean cuisine isn't for everyone; a good way to try it is with the small plates, which work for appetizers or late-night noshing. The dining room is chic, cool and contemporary; but when the weather is fine, the terrace is the place to be. By the way, a margarita goes very well with chef Spike Gjerde's delicious cooking.

Try this: The house guacamole, prepared table-side.

Lillies

500 Harbor View Drive, Inner Harbor, 410-230-0705

There have been many restaurants in this spot, and they all have one thing in common: one of the best views in the Inner Harbor. This latest incarnation is a Mediterranean tapas bar, where you can eat small plates inside or on the edge of the marina. The house specialty is chili, and, yes, it is a tapas plate; but the seafood, like scallops in tzatziki sauce, works better to share.

Try this: The mezze platter, with rice-stuffed grape leaves, eggplant dip, hummus, olives, feta cheese, tabbouleh (cracked wheat and parsley salad) and warm pita.

Mezze

1606 Thames St., Fells Point, 410-563-7600

Some bars are places to see and be seen, some are where you gather with friends for conversation, a glass of wine and good food. Mezze (which translates roughly as "appetizer") falls into the latter category. It's the casual sibling of the excellent seafood restaurant next door, Kali's Court, and many -- but by no means all -- of the small plates reflect the Greek origins of the owners.

Try this: Oysters baked with spinach, feta and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

Pazo

1429 Aliceanna St., Fells Point, 410-534-7296

When it opened early this year, Baltimore's most high-end tapas restaurant raised the small-plate stakes. The variety of choices is impressive, and the food even more so -- Mediterranean peasant cooking filtered through the owners' haute-cuisine sensibilities. The former boiler factory has been transformed into a terrific tapas bar for the hip with plush materials and rich appointments.

Try this: The Grand Table for Two, a sampling of Pazo's signature dishes.

Red Maple

930 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon, 410-547-0149

Red Maple specializes in beautiful food for beautiful people, served in a striking, minimalist space. This is primarily a bar and lounge, not a dining room, so the fact that the food is as fine as it is comes as something of a surprise. It helps if you are good at wielding chopsticks, although the tapas menu isn't as exclusively Asian as it was when Red Maple first opened. Not sure what to order? The "group tapas" for four, six and eight will help.

Try this: Selections from the Boutique Dumplings menu.

Sascha's 527

527 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon, 410-539-8880

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