Heady Dining in a Tapas Bar
Tapas Teatro transcends trendiness and buzz
Published: October 13, 2010
The last time City Paper reviewed Tapas Teatro (1711 N. Charles St.,  332-0110, tapasteatro.com), several months after it opened in the spring of 2001, then-dining critic Susan Fradkin could barely contain her exasperation as she explained the concept of tapas. “If I tell one more person I went to this great tapas bar and they respond, ‘You? You went to a topless bar?,’ I will scream,” she wrote. “Small plates. Tasting plates. Appetizers. Grazing portions. No nudity involved.”
My, how times have changed. Nearly a decade later, if there is a diner in Baltimore who hasn’t heard of tapas, they’re most likely living under a rock (or holed up in a topless bar). And if it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t offer small plates somewhere on its menu, it’s even harder to imagine the Station North corridor without Qayum Karzai’s Tapas Teatro. It’s become the go-to drinks-and-dinner choice pre-/post-Charles and Everyman Theatres, one of the few and favored outdoor dining spots in the city, and, as a friend pointed out, a great place to eat solo, particularly after a crowded MARC train ride home from Washington, D.C.
And yet it had been awhile since I’d eaten at Tapas Teatro. Even mid-week, crowds can make it challenging to get a table, and while I’d never had a bad experience there, some meals hadn’t wowed me either. But a recent visit did, and I’m already jonesing to go back.
Sure, it was insanely crowded. And yes, I left hoarse from trying to communicate over the din. But the food was the best it has ever been, and if memory serves correctly, the menu reflects a more concentrated Mediterranean focus than it has in the past. You can order baby octopus. You can choose from four tempranillos by the glass. These details make me happy as a clam (and yes, you can get those too).
It also seems that service has improved. Make no mistake, the folks that work here have to hustle, and sometimes this translates into service that feels a little less personal. But our server was there when we needed him, replacing fallen forks, offering suggestions from the wine list, and answering questions about the provenance of desserts (some house-made, some from Patisserie Poupon, and cheesecake from a local baker). He was swift, but he was patient.
He was also deft in bringing dishes to the table in an order that made sense, so that ensalada simple ($7.95), a small mound of arugula crowned with a pink rose of Serrano ham and thin wedges of Manchego came early in the meal, even though it was ordered as an afterthought. Soon after came more wickedly good Manchego ($6.95), this time coated in almonds and fried until melting, savory-sweet in a drizzle of honey truffle oil. Next was one of the night’s specials, huevos sortidas ($7), a dish that managed to capture the current craze for pickled things and retro comfort food. Here, anchovy, smoked salmon, and a pert cornichon perch atop hard-cooked free-range eggs in a mix of salty, creamy, and crunchy. It’s a nibble that begs for a beer. Verdant pea fritters ($5.95), on the other hand, with rich middles of melting cheese tucked inside the patties like a yolk, benefit more from a sip of crisp Grüner Veltliner. Fortunately, this, too, is available by the glass.
Tapas Teatro offers more than a handful of vegetarian options, from grilled eggplant to a roasted vegetable platter to potato croquettes and an omelet, giving vegetarian diners real choices rather than default ones. And the menu boasts enough larger entrées—a whole rainbow trout, grilled lamb chops, bistek a la teatro—to forgo the small-plate grazing if you’re dining with folks who don’t want to share (or just have larger appetites). But several dishes that don’t seem obviously generous are in fact just that. Sautéed artichokes, shrimp, and briny capers napped in a light cream sauce ($8.95) seemed to be served in a magically bottomless dish (if only). A plate of gently grilled Spanish rock octopus, pulpo y papas ($10.95), garnished with tiny potatoes was equally ample. Only the pinchos moruno ($7.95), pork medallions dried out from grilling, failed to impress.
Of the desserts at Tapas Teatro, the restaurant’s kitchen is currently responsible for the flan, the fried Manchego, and the lovely hazelnut panna cotta ($6.50), all lightness with only the whisper of hazelnut to weigh it down. Served in a deep glass dish with macerated berries and multiple spoons, it’s worth sharing.
Tapas Teatro has certainly benefited from its built-in theater audience, but this visit made it clear that that’s not the only reason it’s stayed around. Like its sister restaurants the Helmand and bistro b, Tapas Teatro has not only maintained the quality of its food long after the restaurant’s initial buzz has fallen to a quiet drone, it’s improved on it, while at the same time offering an experience not easily replicated anywhere in the city.
Tapas Teatro is open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac