With the opening of Nasu Blanca, chalk up one more quirky restaurant that works against all odds. Baltimore is getting more than its share of them, and that's a good thing.
These are small places where the chef simply cooks food he likes and does it well - in this case, Japanese and Spanish food. I have to say I was worried that it was going to be Japanese-Spanish fusion, and that sounded a little too quirky even for me.
But, no. Chef-owner David Sherman likes to keep things simple. Nasu Blanca has an all-Spanish wine list, fine sangria by the glass, and a respectable sake list. The small plates on the menu are divided into tapas, which are almost wholly Spanish, and zensai, which are almost wholly Japanese. The paellas have no Japanese ingredients. Only the entrees could be described with the word fusion, and even then I would say modern American with Asian and Mediterranean accents.
Sherman arranges each ingredient of a dish (including the Spanish ones) with a Japanese sensibility - even when he's stuffing bright red piquillo peppers with lumps of crab and surrounding them with a bit of broth. You are meant to stop and admire before you pick up your fork.
Some of these small plates work very well as a first course, like slices of Japanese eggplant in a sweet miso sauce on a large, glossy banana leaf. (I'm not sure why it wasn't white eggplant, given the name of the restaurant. Nasu is a Japanese eggplant, blanca is Spanish for white.) A lobster or vegetable tempura, each piece delicately beaded with a golden crust, is given just a little tweak: a citrusy ponzu sauce for dipping.
Other small plates are a small meal, like the slices of tender, pink-centered lamb loin with mache and red pepper salad, a special the evening we ate there.
The menu is seasonal, and soon we'll be saying goodbye to such items as heirloom tomato gazpacho with seared scallop and, even sadder, to the plump seared scallops nestled in a succotash of sweet corn, edamame and red pepper with a fresh mint vinaigrette. The fat, moist rockfish fillet might stay around, with its fingerling potatoes soaking up the rich ponzu butter sauce.
A handsome New York strip, firm and full of meaty flavor, is a terrific take on the classic American meat and potatoes, with an intense Spanish wine sauce, one crisp fried onion ring, and a swirl of cabrales, the earthy Spanish blue cheese.
Nasu Blanca has four paellas, including a vegetarian one with asparagus, roasted peppers, currants and pine nuts. Sherman has his own take on paella Valenciana with chorizo, chicken and shellfish. There's less rice in proportion to the meats and seafood and fewer vegetables, and it's more the consistency of risotto than what we traditionally get in Baltimore restaurants.
I can imagine some people wanting more quantity for the price. In fact, I can tell already that's going to be the biggest complaint about Nasu Blanca. I'm not sure Locust Point is ready for $30 entrees.
My biggest complaint - and my only substantial one - was that the kitchen was sometimes too free with the salt shaker, so the clean flavors of the ingredients didn't always come through.
Desserts are few but hard to resist, including a banana bread pudding with caramel sauce and a warm, gooey-centered chocolate cake. A delicate panna cotta with a swirl of berry sauce was understated but satisfying. The coffee was superb, strong and bracing.
The restaurant is located in a corner rowhouse where Henry's Tavern and then Backfinz used to be. It's been handsomely renovated and designed, with only subtle references to Spain and Japan. The colors are neutral and soothing, the lines clean. Downstairs is a large limestone bar with a lounge area. Upstairs is the dining room, which seats 50. In spite of sound-deadening fabric, the room gets noisy when the bar crowd downstairs gets going.
Nasu Blanca has a lot of what it takes to succeed: good food with a clear-cut concept behind it, a personality of its own, and a chic d?cor. One day it may be surrounded by up-market condominiums whose tenants would be its natural customers. I only hope it's not ahead of its time in this location.
Podcasts of Elizabeth Large's reviews can be found at baltimoresun.com/large
1036 E. Fort Ave., Locust Point
Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner
Small plates, $4-$15; entrees, $19-$36