2431-2433 St. Paul St.,  235-0128, callescucina.com
More at weekly.citypaper.com
Chef Carl Vahl is living the dream. According to the self-penned biography posted on his blog, Calle’s Cucina (italiancookingschool.wordpress.com), Vahl practiced law in Olean, N.Y., for 25 years before uprooting himself to Manhattan and then to Italy to study culinary arts. In 2010, he and his wife and business partner, Mary, moved to Baltimore, and in December 2011 opened Calle’s Cucina in the former Yabba Pot space in the 2400 block of St. Paul Street. On his blog Vahl notes that he now refers to himself as Chef Calle; his 1985 certificate of passing the New York bar now hangs in Calle Cucina’s men’s restroom, a remnant of a former life.
Setting up shop in Baltimore makes good sense for a new chef like Vahl given the city’s history of quirky, highly personalized neighborhood restaurants, from the still-missed Irina’s Unlimited Range on Barclay Street to current gems such as Mekong Delta (not to mention the incomparable Martick’s). Based on these hits, as well as the city’s misses, the key to any modest storefront restaurant seems to be the management of expectations—on the part of both the customer and the proprietor. In these sorts of casual spaces, customers look for interesting, innovative food not found elsewhere—they want a reason to come to your joint rather than the one in another neighborhood—served, perhaps, with a dollop of charm for a fair price. They’re OK with a casual setting and a casual menu as long as there’s a balance between the bill of fare and the atmosphere. No one wants to pay big bucks to eat filet mignon in a space that feels like someone’s first post-college apartment, for example.
Small neighborhood restaurants like Calle’s Cucina give proprietors/chefs a chance to stretch out in the kitchen, experiment, show off. They can tinker with a menu, and with prices, if necessary; they can get to know their clientele and gauge what their audience best responds to. They can become that hidden gem that foodies tell other foodies about only with a sense of reluctance that their favorite secret will be out.
Calle’s Cucina has the potential for this kind of following, though it’s quite not there yet. The place has an honest feel to it, from the fresh coat of lemon-lime paint, paper globe lights, original local art, and mismatched chairs to the earnestness of the wait staff who explain that one menu item isn’t available this evening because “chef isn’t pleased with how it turned out,” a sensible and considerate concession to patrons that makes them feel as if their best interests are taken to heart.
Though Vahl’s food philosophy, as explained on the restaurant’s web site, skews seasonal/local, exceptions are made for the olive oils, meats, and cheeses he needs to execute his mostly Italian menu, which changes frequently. Pizza is available only at lunch (though making it a dinner option might help fill a sparsely inhabited dining room), and dinner tends to be a more formal affair of pastas, seafood, steak, and meat specialties such as osso bucco and braciole, interspersed with a few non-Italian dishes such as Asian pork ribs (a special) and a smoked salmon platter as “first plates” that feel vaguely out of place. There’s no reason one can’t serve Asian (or smoked salmon) and Italian food together, but the pairing with entrées merits some negotiation. Where does it fit in the course of the meal? Do I want ribs prior to my lasagna Bolognese or oven-roasted poussin? Probably not, even if they are very good. That said, the salmon platter ($8.50) is easier to accommodate as a starter to any of the four meat dishes, and Vahl’s deft hand with a house-made dill mayonnaise for the accompanying potato salad makes it a dish worth trying.
Calle’s menu advises that “all dishes are prepared in limited quantities to avoid waste and preserve freshness,” a viable concern of any small business, and components of one dish often turn up in another. Both rigatoni ($17.50) and lasagna are served with a Bolognese sauce thick with minced flank steak but slightly too heavy with a dominant herb (thyme maybe?). Wahoo, the evening’s fish du jour, also turns up in the evening’s best dish, a truly delightful risotto ($21.50) loaded with salmon, calamari, shrimp, and scallops; the equally addictive pommes dauphine, beautifully crisp little balloons of potato-pastry puffs that accompany the braciole ($17.50), are also available as first plates. The potatoes are so satisfying it’s a disappointment that on this evening, the braciole, flank steak rolled around a stuffing of prosciutto, cheese, garlic, and raisins, is dry and graced with just a small portion of chunky tomato sauce. All entrées are served with a respectable house salad and a plate of sliced ciabatta and crumbly homemade corn bread that waitstaff would do well to leave at the table (and replenish) throughout the meal.
Some of Calle’s desserts are made by Café Einstein, some are made in-house, and if the double dark-chocolate bread pudding ($7) is available, order it. Topped with a not-too-sweet cherry gelato, it obliterates any memories of syrupy cherry cordial candies and reminds you why the pairing of chocolate and cherry is still a good one.
Calle’s is BYOB, doesn’t charge a corkage fee, and has an arrangement for a 10 percent discount on wine purchased at Charles Village Liquors across the street from the restaurant. This is not necessarily an easy neighborhood in which to open a business, and at this point, the restaurant has somewhat limited hours, well-intentioned service, some decent if slightly overpriced dishes, and a lot of dreams. Given time and a few tweaks, they certainly have the ingredients to make it.
Calle’s Cucina is open for lunch Wednesday-Saturday and dinner Thursday-Saturday. Cordial.