Small Plates Deliver Big Taste

Lure Of Tapas Draws Many To Maple Lawn's Ranazul

August 30, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Ranazul is one of Maple Lawn's success stories. Two of the planned community's first-generation restaurants, Trapeze and oZ. Chophouse, have already closed after four years.

But just when the tapas craze seemed to be dying out, Ranazul opened as a tapas and wine bar and never looked back. It's in the news right now because one of the owners, Carlos Venegas, has taken over the oZ. Chophouse space nearby.

Ranazul is on the main street of the luxury development, a street that will remind you of Disneyland's Main Street. It could be Anywhere, U.S.A. The owners have done their best to give the large, contemporary space a bistro feel and some personality, but their attempts aren't entirely successful. In spite of the art nouveau appointments, the bar, two lounge areas, seating for 170 and a private dining room, it seems a bit cavernous. High ceilings and huge windows overlooking the chain stores that line the street don't help.

Still, it's a meeting place for the community. Regulars come to enjoy the small plates with one of the specialty cocktails or a glass of wine from the far-ranging list. You can also order wines by the 5- or 8-ounce glass, which gives the customer some flexibility.

As for the food itself, five entrees are offered in the evening, but the tapas were what everyone seemed to be having the night we were there, and I imagine that's usually the case.

As at most tapas places, it's easy to end up spending more than you thought you would. You might start by ordering a couple of dishes per person, but by the time you share, it's easy to decide you need a little more of this or that. At Ranazul, this is compounded by several factors. The server did some serious upselling of dishes, a glass of sangria is $7, the premium cocktail list has no prices and bread with garlic olive oil is $3. While that last is very European of them, each refill was another charge. We ended up spending $9 for bread alone.

But the most important reason we ended up spending more than we thought we would was that the kitchen knows what it's doing. You can get something as simple as a Caesar salad or as elaborate as duck breast with plum sauce, butternut squash and hazelnuts.

The first dishes we ordered, including a delicious scallops special, were so successful we ordered a few more. The fritto misto, morsels of fried shrimp and calamari, came out tender, gold and crusty, accompanied by a zingy salsa and tartar sauce. Two rib lamb chops, pink as ordered, were equally spectacular, enhanced by a red wine sauce, grilled potatoes and a little aioli.

In fairness, we couldn't expect everything to reach those heights, and nothing else quite did. Grilled curried chicken on skewers didn't really taste much like curry. But the creamy cilantro sauce helped a lot. And fresh spinach sauteed with pine nuts and raisins would have been even better with one fewer ingredient, the chopped apple.

Ranazul, as you might have guessed from my description so far, doesn't stick to Latino dishes as the inspiration for its tapas. One of the best, although it wasn't as pretty to look at as some of the others, was the tuna tartare: melt-in-the-mouth sushi-grade tuna tossed with panko bread crumbs, sesame seeds and soy sauce.

I was least interested in the sopa azteca, tortilla soup. It was handsome, with chicken, grated cheese, avocado and decorative tortilla strips on top. But the soup itself tasted more like Maryland crab soup base than anything else.

Save room for a sweet at the end. We decided not to wait 20 minutes for the molten-centered chocolate cake, but I like the fact that it's made to order. Instead we tried a peach cobbler that tasted as if it was made with fresh peaches, an admirable carrot cake, creme brulee flavored with whiskey and honey, and crisp sopaipillas with honey and ice cream. The coffee was good enough to hold its own with the desserts.

The service was fine until the very end. Tapas restaurants are convenient for customers and servers alike because the food comes out as it's ready; nothing has to sit and wait for anything else. So all went well until we got our check. Then we sat watching our waitress involved in a long conversation with the hostess and someone else at the hostess stand, and we couldn't catch anyone else's eye to take our credit card. Finally, I gave up and took it to her. We had a long ride back to Baltimore ahead of us and were tired of waiting.

Ranazul

Where: : 8171 Maple Lawn Blvd., Suite 170, Maple Lawn

Contact: : 301-498-9666, ranazul.us.

Hours: : Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner starting at noon.

Prices: : Tapas: $3-$15, entrees: $22-$30.

Food: : *** (3 stars)

Service: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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