Small plates with a Venezuelan accent

Centro Tapas Bar, in the old Bicycle spot, is off to a promising start

May 02, 2010|By Richard Gorelick, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Centro Tapas Bar is off to a promising start. This is the old Bicycle spot, and it's nice to have the place back open after a brief hiatus. Centro was lively on the weeknight when we visited, though only the front room, which includes the bar, was seating diners. The two smaller (and, frankly, less inviting) dining rooms weren't in use, and Bicycle's sweet old back patio, appearing to be in peak condition, was waiting for nice weather to come and stay.

Centro is the project of George Dailey, whose On the Hill Cafe in Bolton Hill has earned him many friends and fans. Dailey brings to Centro's tapas menu inspiration from Spain, as you'd expect, but also from Venezuela, which you might not. But Dailey lived in Venezuela before moving to Boston, where he met his wife, Jessica. They escaped there, eventually, and moved back to Baltimore, his wife's hometown. Soon came On the Hill.

When you go looking for Venezuela on Centro's menu, look for corn, hominy or yucca. A Venezuelan corn masa cake is topped with oxtail meat, avocado and a fried egg; chicken livers are dusted with crispy corn meal, or maseca, and served in a silky pool of bacon-infused hominy grits; a simple sweet-corn pancake is topped with queso blanco and a chili glaze. The inevitable pork belly — and who would have thought, just two years ago, that pork belly would be inevitable — winds up with hominy, too, all dressed up with agave-chili pan sauce.

These are set among more recognizably Spanish-style items, such as croquettes of Serrano ham and chicken, lamb meatballs and pan-cooked shrimp with garlic and peppers. In all, Centro offers about two-dozen cold and hot tapas plates, as well as charcuteries and cheese selections, a handful of preserved or pickled snacks it's calling "counter tapas" and, finally, three larger-portioned dishes that are intended for sharing.

Centro's menu feels just about the right size, both for diners who have better things to do than navigate unwieldy menus and for a kitchen still finding its way. Also nice is Centro's tidy wine list. It features a reasonably priced selection of Spanish and South American wines, most of which are available by the glass.

We had a good time here. Centro delivers absolutely enough good dishes to hold interest. I'm not worried about any kitchen that knows just how much strong Cabrales cheese will bring out the best qualities of tender lima beans or that can finish off a plate of silky sauteed spinach with roasted chick peas, chopped dates and a smoky pine nut butter. Everything comes out looking finished, thought out and cared about.

The charcuterie and cheese plate we ordered was a small exception, or more like a missed opportunity to display some flair or originality. The components here were good, especially a soft Mallorcan chorizo, but the presentation was lackluster, with only a few small slivers of membrillo adding interest.

One of the three available big plates, the house's seafood paella, ought to have a box around it on the menu. It's outstanding, with fresh prawns, mussels and clams; toothy Calasparra rice; and rich, warm flavors. The menu says the paella serves two or three people, but ordered along with other small dishes, it easily satisfied four at our table. We wouldn't have missed it.

I'd easily order again the Canelon, a long pasta tube stuffed with veal, pork and foie gras, covered with a béchamel Manchego gratin; it was every bit as decadently rich as it sounds. There are one or two items I want another crack at before I commit to them. I'm not sure about the sweet-leaning pan sauce that dresses the pork belly. I like the idea of cornmeal-dusted chicken livers, and I loved the bacon grits they came with. But portioned with only three livers, this dish didn't divide up well among four people. The solution to that lies, I think, in a staff that is trained to anticipate this and deputized to offer solutions — like, "Hey, for an extra buck, we'll throw in an extra liver" (or an extra prawn in the paella).

That brings me to my only concern about Centro, which is that it's missing a little something extra. When we visited, George Dailey was valiantly pitching in on the floor, but I worry that this distracts him from the myriad other details a restaurateur needs to tend to, every night, to create a pleasurable dining experience, like music and lighting.

On our visit, "Bamboleo" played at least three times on a continuous Gipsy Kings loop, and the lights needed badly to be dimmed. When they finally were, at our table's prodding, the room suddenly felt better, and the food looked better.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, Centro does dessert very well, and customers who order the coconut custard, the churros with dipping chocolate, or especially, the Cinco Leches, a milk-saturated almond cake topped with whipped cream, will be singing Centro's praises.

Centro Tapas Bar
1444 Light St.
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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