Venezuelan cuisine doesn't have a foothold in the Mid-Atlantic—not yet, anyway. But if the dishes at Alma Cocina Latina (2400 Boston St.,  212-4273, almacocinalatina.com) in the Can Company in Canton are any indication of what Venezuela has to offer, non-Venezuelans have been blissfully unaware of the most creative, delicate, and bright dishes around.
Irena Stein, owner of Alma Cocina Latina and a native Venezuelan, has a background as an artist that shines through the aesthetic of the industrial dining-room space softened by greenery, vivid photos, and glittering lights. It looked ripped from a catalog that's not too stuffy or pretentious, but also so artfully designed you're sure you can't afford anything in it.
Alma Cocina's cocktail menu delivers a promising but small selection of cleanly composed beverages. La Sombra ($12) packed a smoky-sweet mezcal punch that was well balanced and slightly tart on the finish. The Pisco de MarÍa ($11) showed off a velvety rendition of a South American classic—the pisco sour. It was smooth, tart, and fluffy. So far, this was the best pisco sour I've had outside of my kitchen.
Most of the menu is composed of smaller plates and shareable dishes. While Alma Cocina isn't a tapas restaurant, the menu lends itself nicely to picking and noshing with friends, though it does offer a smaller selection of entree-sized dishes. The smaller appetizers run the gamut from tequeños ($4 small order/$8 large order), delightful little cheese sticks made of queso blanco which read like halloumi wrapped in fried pastry, to the highly recommended lobster gazpacho ($14) featuring a luxurious and tangy-sweet broth poured over lobster, croutons, and a yogurt pesto. I've ordered the gazpacho twice and each time our table's conversation fell silent, my table mates unable to formulate words while taking in such expertly combined flavors at the same time. Shit, I don't even normally like gazpacho.
Exploring Alma Cocina's ceviche offerings, I could see what Stein described as chefs Enrique Limardo and Federico Tischler's traditional-yet-innovative approach to classic Latin dishes. They have a penchant for taking standard fish dishes and blending them with intriguing techniques from other parts of the world. The tiradito mahi ($17) was prepared in a way Stein described as Japanese-style ceviche, by slicing the mahi they way we normally see sashimi while applying such South American ingredients as breadcrumbs, cilantro mojo, and a drizzle of honey. Similarly, the ceviche pesca del día ($16) borrowed techniques from nearby Peru by marinating bass in leche de tigre (celery, stock, garlic, chili, lime, and salt) and combining it with Venezuelan touches, including spiced sweet potato and green mango jelly.
The recuerdos del mar ($16) showcased mackerel three ways—pâté, pickled, and cured—accompanied by refreshing diced mango and papaya. It had become clear: Limardo and Tischler's flavor game is strong. While ceviche on its own delivers vivid flavors, each rendition offered vibrant and thoughtful combinations by intertwining eclectic techniques from around the world.
The beet and potato salad ($14), which, I was told, is a traditional Venezuelan dish, arrived artfully arranged with a rainbow of beets and potatoes, both roasted and mashed, topped with a runny egg and beet coulis. Not only was it colorful, it was a refreshing take on a dish that easily could have been starchy and old-fashioned. Alongside it, I munched away on crispy, breaded yucca fries ($8) drizzled with stripes of cilantro mojo, Sriracha, and a smattering of cane-sugar syrup. Unusual in their presentation, they were tender and lightly topped with well-balanced spicy-sweet flavors.
By now I'd noticed a theme: Many dishes had slightly sweet undertones of honey, cane syrup, or plantains. I was told this comes from a historic approach to Venezuelan cooking whereby, through human migration, Arab cooking techniques using honey and other sweeteners, like dried fruit, infused with Spanish cooking styles that later influenced Venezuelan cuisine.
Ordering from the arepas menu, we continued the sweet-and-salty party by sampling three hand-held little pockets: house-made deviled ham and gooey cheese ($9.50); black beans and sweet plantains with a dollop of cilantro mojo ($9.50); and slow-roasted round-eye smeared with caramel sauce and cilantro sprigs ($13). Each was bold, crispy, and fun to eat. The arepas menu noted that each one is gluten free. It was here I noticed that many dishes were gluten free and the animal products were sourced from ethical and often nearby purveyors.
As dessert descended to the table, I kept an eye on the classics. The quesillo tradicional ($8) was a dense, almost cheesy flan, prepared three ways: a deep caramel-y rectangle-like cake, a nutty dollop of thick and creamy pudding, and a beaten version resembling whipped cream. Each rendition highlighted often-overlooked nuances in texture and sweet-sour flavors in this ubiquitous dessert. The torrija ($9) is essentially French toast served for dessert, but Alma Cocina's version of this comfort food flaunted a crunchy burnt sugar outer layer reminiscent of creme brulee. Each presentation of these two typically humble desserts delivered expert execution assembled in approachable and unassuming ways.
Our table's conversations with the staff gave me a strong sense that Stein not only prides her establishment on quality food, but also is invested in maintaining a high-performing and happy staff. For us, Alma Cocina Latina produced some of the best meals we've had in years—Baltimore or elsewhere. I can promise I'll be back so often they might get sick of me.
Alma Cocina Latina is open Monday-Wednesday 5-10 p.m., Thursday-Friday 5-11 p.m., Saturday 11 am.-11 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.