Yesterday was our fifth wedding anniversary, so we wanted to dine someplace special. We decided on Pazo, the latest venture by local restaurateur Cindy Wolf.
For my birthday in 2003, we tried out her Charleston. It was meh. After hearing so many wonderful things about the place, we thought we couldn't go wrong. But the staff was so everpresent as to be suffocating, the dining room was too brightly lit, we were too close to the open kitchen that was even more brightly lit, and the food was...ok. I was extremely disappointed with two things in particular: my "salad" of wilted spinach that turned out to be a huge pile of cooked spinach without much else. I was anticipating mostly raw spinach that had been tossed with a warm vinaigrette, but no, this was cooked all the way through. Spinach has an astringent quality to it that comes out at a point about mid-way between wilted and cooked-to-death, and this pile of dark green leafiness was highly astringent. The second thing that turned me off was the extreme gluey quality of the sauces. They tasted fine, but our lips were still prone to sticking together hours after the meal.
Despite that, we tried Ms. Wolf's second restaurant, Petit Louis. We liked it so much we've been back three times. The food is wonderful (apart from the occasional gluey sauce) and the whole francophilic atmosphere is charming.
Now to Pazo. We figured it could be hit or miss for us, but how badly could they screw up the myriad small plates that make up Spanish tapas? No screw ups at all, as far as we could tell. We were a bit overwhelmed by the menu, which offers sixty-nine items in eleven categories (not including a dessert menu, which we did not see), so we wimped out and took advantage of "Pazo's Grand Table for Two," a steal at $49. We received eleven dishes: eggplant dip, whole wheat fougasse, shrimp with garlic & tomato, romaine hearts, grilled swordfish, pinchitos andalucia, slow-cooked lamb, pane di ceci, grilled mushrooms, fresh mahon, and crème catalan. This was washed down with a bottle of Bobal/Tempranillo, Rozaleme (Requeria) 2003. The eggplant dip was pure heaven - smoky roasted eggplant pureed to an ethereally smooth texture and flavored with a touch of cayenne and extra virgin olive oil. The shrimp with garlic and tomato featured small but flavorful shrimp in a highly garlicky sauce, what every "shrimp scampi" aspires to be. The pinchitos were skewered bits of cumin-scented pork with a red pepper aioli and the slow-cooked lamb was as tender as pot roast and served with the worlds most garlicky mashed potatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The grilled mushrooms were smoky and unusual, redolent of rosemary, and bedded with chopped arugula in a tart lemony dressing. The pane di ceci was a chickpea pancake, cooked in such a hot pan that it had a flavor akin to the Chinese "wok chi," and was topped with a banyuls onion marmelade. Oh, so wonderful, but I must confess that chickpeas hate me and my digestive system both. The creme catalan was our dessert, a lemony custard with a bruleed top, the tangy lemon and the burnt caramel making sweet music together in my mouth.
But enough about the food. Go try it. The prices are shamefully cheap, including those on the extensive wine list (there are bottles listed for $16!). The decor is extremely hip and trendy, dark and clubby with Spanish/Mediterranean influences. It gets noisy, so go early if you want a quiet romantic dinner. If you like noise, go late in the evening, when the first floor lounge is transformed into a dance floor.
1425 Aliceanna St
Baltimore, MD 21231