Clavel, Lane Harlan's latest venture, makes for an ideal social dining experience

Plenty of critics have already fawned over Clavel—and it mostly lives up to the hype

There's been plenty of hype around Clavel (225 W. 23rd St., [301] 848-2849, barclavel.com) since it opened early this summer. Erstwhile Sun food critic Richard Gorelick gushed about the mezcaleria and taqueria in his review and included its aguachile ceviche on a list of 10 best new dishes in Baltimore; b put a gushing feature story about Lane Harlan, the owner of Clavel, on its cover; describing Clavel's mezcal and tacos for CBS Baltimore, Stephanie Hartmann wrote, "the gods have answered your prayers."

That last description inspires serious eye-rolling, but here's the thing: For the most part, Clavel lives up to the hype. The cozy white-walled space, dotted with succulents and other small plants and lit by strings of bare light bulbs, lacks the manufactured twee of Harlan's other Remington venture, speakeasy-inspired W.C. Harlan. It feels bright and comfortable instead, making it easy to while away a few hours at a table or the bar—assuming you can get a seat at either: It was standing room only when we visited at dinnertime on a recent weeknight, and Clavel doesn't take reservations, so if you're trying to go there for dinner, plan accordingly .

If you can't fight for a seat for dinner, it's still worth planning on swinging by later in the evening for snacks and drinks. The menu is more conducive to leisurely, snacking socializing anyway, with its carefully curated collection of small Mexican dishes. The centerpiece of the menu are the tacos, dainty, four-bite creations that you'll want to mix and match and share. If you can only order one, get the cochinita pibil ($3), slow-cooked pulled pork cooked with bitter oranges that brighten up the tender meat. But you should come with friends and order a diverse plate of tacos, because they're all worth trying. The rajas vegetarianas ($3), the only vegetarian taco available, has a creamy filling with corn, onions, and mild poblano peppers; the lengua ($3) is silky smooth beef tongue that you can spice up with the collection of house-made pepper sauces that come to the table with the tacos. And we'd be remiss to not mention the tortillas each little pile of taco filling is served on. These aren't mere vehicles for the filling: They're a culinary delight in their own right, soft, made in house, with a surprising amount of corn flavor.

Aside from the tacos, we also tried the ceviche sinaloense ($6), with tiny dices of shrimp that had been cured in lime and chiles mingling with equally tiny dices of tomato, cucumber, and onion atop a crispy tortilla. The whole pile is topped off by a singular thin slice of avocado and a slice of a jalapeno, making for a fresh, spicy-and-sour-tinged appetizer. On the heavier side of things, the queso fundido ($12) is a whole skillet full of bubbling, delicious cheese, topped with slightly greasy (in a good way) chorizo and served with totopos—thicker than your usual tortilla chips, and featuring a fresh corn flavor. The only drawback to our dining experience was some neglectful service toward the end of the night. Though the tacos were delivered to our table only a few minutes after we ordered them, it took us ages to get a server's attention again after we finished them, though we suspect that was in part because there appeared to be a shift change during our visit. But because we were there with friends, we didn't mind too much, instead focusing on conversation and taking in the atmosphere.

The food is only half of the equation at Clavel: The mezcal menu offers pages and pages of varieties to choose from. When Harlan spoke last month to CP Hooch columnist Brennen Jensen, she referred to Clavel as a "mezcal library."

"I say that because it's an education," she said at the time. "It's an opportunity to take yourself on a journey learning the different ways of translating the agave plant."

It certainly is a chance for an education, though one that might have a bit of a learning curve. For those who are overwhelmed by options, the menu has a few "mezcales de la casa" that it suggests as a starting point for people new to the Mexican spirit that's distilled from agave plants. We ordered a few different 0.75-ounce servings of the house mezcals ($3-$5) to try and develop a palate for them. Our first attempt tasted more like pure burning alcohol than anything else, but after we quickly drank from our can of Tecate ($3) to wash out the flavor and cautiously sipped at the other options, we found that we could taste different notes of smoky flavors between them. We could easily picture ourselves relaxing all evening, sharing the small servings with friends and taking notes as we taught ourselves to notice all the different flavors.

If drinking straight spirits doesn't sound tempting, Clavel also offers cocktails that, like the food menu, feature fresh-tasting ingredients made in house. The margarita ($8) here isn't your usual neon, sugar-laden Tex-Mex concoction, but rather features fresh lime flavors and high-quality tequila (which is a kind of mezcal), and you can add tres chiles shrub to it for $1 for a bit of a spicy afterkick. We were also big fans of the santa sandia ($12), featuring watermelon juice with spicy afternotes thanks to the chili salt rim and the serrano pepper mixed in. We wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a gift from the gods, but it is a beautiful cocktail. We're already dreaming about the next evening that we'll be able to wander to Remington for another one, the bright neon sign hanging out from the taqueria guiding our way.

Clavel is open Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-1 a.m.

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