Spanish tapas by the harbor

Restaurant Review

Palate

April 23, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

I wouldn't open a restaurant in Harborplace unless it was a seafood restaurant or a Cheesecake Factory. Every tourist who calls me wants to know where to get the best crab cake (heck, everybody wants to know where to get the best crab cake) and as for the Cheesecake Factory -- well, the lines are self-explanatory.

Luckily, everyone doesn't feel the way I do. Harborplace's newest restaurant is La Tasca, a handsome tapas bar with good food. It's part of an upscale chain based in England.

Baltimore has plenty of tapas restaurants, small plates being about the hottest thing going in restaurants these days, but those others aren't trying to be authentically Spanish. La Tasca is. Of course, the setting is a fantasy. The shell is two levels of Harborplace's minimalist contemporary architecture with all the trappings of Mediterranean decor -- beamed ceiling, wrought iron, tiles, dark wood, colorful pillows, pottery -- added on. It works remarkably well.

But the menu doesn't compromise with the locale. In other words, there isn't a crab cake on the menu. You can't get catsup, although our waitress told us people have asked. You can't get decaf coffee or tea, which surprised me. You can't get butter.

So what can you get? Lots and lots of small plates -- nearly 50 in all. They are all priced under $10 except for a sampler of starters meant for the whole table. If you want more of a real dinner, it's paella or nothing. You need a minimum of two people to order the paella, and you have a choice of six in various meat, seafood and vegetarian combinations.

The idea behind tapas, if anyone out there doesn't know, is to order as the mood strikes you. Take a group of friends, order a pitcher of sangria (Thursday is half-price pitcher night, but the pitchers have a lot of ice in them on Thursdays.) Then when you feel hungry, start with a small plate or two for the table. They come out quickly so you can flag down your server and order a couple more when the spirit moves you.

The food is protein-heavy, rich and often salty (but not too salty). Order the goat cheese and tomato salad and you'll get about four times as much goat cheese as tomato, all of it soaking in the restaurant's classic Spanish salad dressing made with oil, vinegar and chopped olives. (It's the only dressing La Tasca offers, so don't ask for pepper Parmesan.)

Enormous shrimp, simply grilled with sea salt, arrive at the table with their heads on. They always taste more succulent to me served that way. Tender deep-fried squid comes with a smooth, seductive garlic mayonnaise, and no, you can't get seafood sauce.

Grilled chorizo, the spicy Spanish sausage, which comes on a bit of red cabbage, is a must-have; and you shouldn't skip the miniature lamb casserole. The meat has been cooked so long in white wine and seasonings it's reduced to moist, delicious shreds, with a few chunks of potato thrown in for good measure.

There's a whole section of vegetarian tapas, but even they aren't exactly health food. Fried potatoes come with garlic mayonnaise, for instance. The fat grilled asparagus spears, slightly charred for flavor, swim in olive oil. These are good, but the best of the vegetables is baby spinach sauteed with garlic, pine nuts and raisins.

Some of our tapas were more successful than others were, but the good thing about small plates is that nothing is a major commitment. I wouldn't order the tapas-size paella again, for instance. Although the rice itself was deeply satisfying, the promised chicken and seafood were conspicuously absent. The grilled pork loin on toast wasn't as memorable as some of the other dishes were; next time, I would try the grilled pork tenderloin with pepper and onions or the spare ribs.

Desserts are as rich as the tapas, with lots of whipped cream and several sauces drizzled across the plates. You can go light -- comparatively speaking -- with strawberries and strawberry ice cream, or indulge in a chocolate hazelnut nougat confection with ice cream, flan with raisins and pine nuts, or a sort of coffee mousse cake. The meringue tart with cinnamon turned out to be a variation on tres leche cake, light and sweet, and involved no meringue and no cinnamon that I could tell. It was delicious if you had no preconceptions from the menu description.

I don't know if a tapas restaurant without a crab cake can survive in Harborplace. But I do know that given the food, prices, service and atmosphere, La Tasca deserves to.

...................... elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

FOOD *** (3 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

LA TASCA

Address: Pratt Street Pavilion, Harborplace

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Tapas: $2.95-$9.95; paellas: $12.95-$19.95.

Call: 410-209-2563

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