Basque in the Glow, Hon: La Cuchara brings beautifully prepared cuisine, obsessive staff in Baltimore

City Paper
The delicious Basque tapas at La Cuchara are ideal for a social dining experience.

Straddling the border of southwestern France and north-central Spain, nestled in the Pyrenees mountain range against the coast of the Bay of Biscay, lies Basque Country, home to just one of the indigenous ethnic groups that constitute Spain. Basque cuisine, full of seafood, wood-grilled dishes, and bite-sized tapas called pintxos, hasn't made as much of a headway in the American dining scene as other types of Spanish food have, but La Cuchara (3600 Clipper Mill Road, [443] 708-3838, lacucharabaltimore.com) has brought it to Baltimore—and given the quality of the experience at La Cuchara, we won't be surprised if the restaurant becomes a staple in the local upscale dining scene.

The restaurant, located in the Meadow Mill complex in Woodberry, is big, with a sleek 40-seat bar and plenty of tables. A mass of servers and staff move methodically throughout like clockwork, some bringing out dishes as others go quietly between the tables to top off water glasses or spirit away empty plates as guests finish off the dishes. The efficiency is almost unnerving as you watch the staffers swoop around the restaurant, but you never feel rushed, and the number of hands makes sense, given the number of dishes that you'll probably end up ordering when you eat here. The menu is divided into pintxos ($2 each), tapas, entrees, and sides, and it's worth ordering as many of the dishes off each section as you can.

The pintxos are bite-sized: The smoked mussels pintxos, for instance, was actually a singular mussel, flanked on a food pick by olives and piquillo peppers which provided a bit of sweet and salty flavor to complement the distinct smoky flavor of the mussel. The manchego dish was similarly dainty, featuring a cube of cheese adorned with black walnuts, but the single-bite size made for a delicious primer for what was to come.

The tapas dishes are more conducive to sharing—as a party of five, we were all able to get a taste of each of the four tapas we ordered. We were almost reluctant to dismantle some of the dishes, though, because of their beautiful presentation. The charred peaches ($14) featured four halves of peaches elegantly topped with whisper-thin slices of parmesan cheese, walnuts, and edible flowers and clovers. It was a little early in the season for peaches, our waiter informed us, but the peaches still tasted sweet, thanks to their time on the kitchen's wood grill. Flowers and clovers also topped the foie gras ($17), which featured two buttery, barely salty slices of duck liver that sat on a bed of sweet apricot slices, all surrounded by dainty dots of a sweet Pedro Ximénez wine reduction. And the patatas bravas ($8)—oh, those potatoes. The cubes were soft but well sauteed with garlic and green onions, with spice and citrus coming through as an aftertaste, providing a far more complex flavor profile than nearly all potato side dishes we've had.

The entrees lived up to the high expectations the tapas had established. The strip steak ($38), sourced from Monkton's Roseda Farm, was some seriously high-quality and buttery meat, and came with zucchini that had been grilled to take on a surprisingly smoky wood flavor. The duck confit ($27) featured crunchy, crisp skin that stood in stark contrast to the moist, tender meat beneath it, but as well prepared as the duck was, it was nearly overshadowed by the gnocchi accompanying it: a crispy exterior paired with a creamy, cheesy interior containing what appeared to be flecks of green onion. The three olive bread montadito ($18) made for a refreshing counterpoint to all the meat dishes—the open-faced sandwich was topped with fresh peas, beans, and thin slices of squash, with just enough goat cheese spread across the bread to lend the dish some creaminess and complex flavor without detracting from the crispness of the vegetables. The morcilla ($24), aka Spanish blood sausage, didn't quite compare to the other entrees, but it was still a quality sausage—the meat crumbled into juicy morsels as we cut through the casing—and paired well with the poached duck egg, potatoes, and bits of bacon that accompanied it.

Even after finishing off all these dishes—our waitress expressed surprise that we had been able to eat everything—we still somehow found room to order dessert. We couldn't resist trying the pumpernickel ice cream ($3), which had a unique granular texture and a slightly nutty, savory edge to it. Oddly, the texture of the chocolate ice cream was entirely different—it was closer to a frozen mousse, rich but not overwhelmingly so.

We finished off the small scoops of ice cream and settled back contentedly with a cup of coffee ($6.50 for a large French press) as our food digested. We realized that, in true Spanish form, our dinner had taken two hours, though we hadn't noticed the time pass—the multiple courses had been smoothly paced, allowing us to revel in the delicious food and in each other's company.

La Cuchara is open Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m.

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