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Free Range

Mari Luna Bistro

A new city Mari Luna doesn’t quite live up to its suburban siblings

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Sam Holden


Mari Luna Bistro

1225 Cathedral St., [410] 637-8013, mariluna.com

More at weekly.citypaper.com

When it was announced that Jaime Luna would be opening a third version of his successful Pikesville-based Mari Luna restaurants in the Cathedral Street space last occupied by Robert Oliver Seafood, you could almost hear Mari Luna fans across the city swoon in anticipation. No more drives to the suburbs for city-dwelling Mari Luna fans! Another choice for pre- or post-symphony dining! More Mexican food downtown!

Without exception, it seems, Baltimoreans (myself included) love Luna’s restaurants—the original Mari Luna Mexican Grill and the more formal Mari Luna Latin Grille—and with good reason. Both Pikesville locations are unpretentious and affordable and offer attentive service and authentic food. They’re the kind of places where you feel equally comfortable taking a colleague for lunch or your parents for dinner, where you can get something as simple as a burrito or as special as paella, where the greeting will be warm whether you’re a regular or on your first visit.

The newest Mari Luna, Mari Luna Bistro, brings this same formula downtown with only slightly less success. The food is mostly fine, and service, on a quiet midweek night, sufficient. And yet, something seems to get lost in the transition from the burbs to downtown.

Mari Luna Bistro bills itself as a “cocina Mexicana,” complete with deep maize-colored walls, teal ceilings, and a guacamole bar at one end of the dining room. The aim is festivity and warmth, but the generous proportions of the space undermine any sense of intimacy, particularly on a quiet night with only a few tables occupied. It feels anonymous, as if it lacks “Mari Luna-ness.” It could be any upscale casual Mexican restaurant.

That challenge aside, some of the sense of disjuncture at Mari Luna Bistro is due to the perception—both the public’s and the management’s—of the restaurant as a default dining destination for patrons of the Meyerhoff and the Lyric. Symphony customers are important, for sure, and it’s no surprise when a server comments that concert evenings are the restaurant’s busiest nights. But like any successful business in this space, patrons will need to be convinced that Mari Luna Bistro is also a place to frequent on evenings when performances aren’t on the menu.

And this is possible, mostly because the menu is designed to please both the casual diner and a patron looking for something more formal. In other words, you can nosh from a giant molcajete of guacamole; order enchiladas, burritos, or chimichangas; or indulge in substantial entrées such as braised pork or lamb shanks, filet mignon, or pollo en mole. There are also a handful of appetizers, soups, and salads.

I’m generally not a fan of flautas—usually all crunch and little flavor—but the flautas de queso ($7) surprise with a greaseless lightness and are boosted by the accompanying avocado-corn relish. Less pleasing is the chile en nogada ($9), a midnight-green poblano pepper stuffed with what tastes like the makings of Thanksgiving stuffing (pork, apple, pear, and walnuts, as well as plantains and tomato). The single pepper is napped in a richer than rich béchamel sauce spiked with goat cheese. It proved too much for even four hearty eaters to finish, though perhaps the problem stemmed from the lack of restraint in dipping into the molcajete of guacamole on the table.

Mari Luna Bistro serves seven different types of guacamole ($10-$14), all using two avocados and a plethora of mix-ins, from bacon bits and queso fresco in the Yucatán version to mango, papaya, and pomegranate seeds in the Veracruz. The traditional comes chunky and studded with onion and tomato. It’s totally satisfying, though one wonders at the necessity of serving it with an additional three salsas.

The tacos are worth sampling if only for the chance to try fillings such as cow tongue and an incredibly tender goat, among more conventional offerings such as skirt steak and shredded pork. For $15, diners can mix and match fillings, and if goat isn’t your thing, definitely try the huachinango, crispy pieces of red snapper that will convert you to fish tacos if you haven’t already seen the light. Enchiladas come several ways, including in green tomatillo sauce or smothered in a fruity mole that yields a mild kick ($11-$14).

I was a fan of the paella de mariscos ($25) at Mari Luna Latin Grille and am pleased to report that the same recipe seems to be in use at Mari Luna Bistro. It’s a lot of a good thing, brimming with mussels, calamari, shrimp, and scallops, all topped off with a baby lobster. At $25 this is a deal, even more so because it could be shareable, especially if appetizers are part of your dining plan. Perhaps because we already had one rice dish at the table, the arroz con pollo ($15) seemed a little like an afterthought, nearly the same dish as the paella, but without all the sparkle and more a problem of ordering than a problem of execution.

I imagine some folks will visit Mari Luna as a post-symphony drink and/or dessert spot, and if so, I hope the kitchen works on the desserts (the bar offerings are fair, featuring Mexican beers and South American wines). Neither we nor our server could tell the difference between a pear and a vanilla crème brûlée, two of three offerings in a crème brûlée trio (the third was a pale pink pomegranate) ($7). A dry, overbaked chocolate cupcake ($7) with a greasy hazelnut filling was a total loss.

Mari Luna Bistro has the potential to succeed here. It has a built-in audience; a loyal fan base; decent and generously portioned, if not spectacular, food; and the experience and knowledge to make a restaurant work. All that’s missing right now is a little magic.

Mari Luna Bistro is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Saturday, and brunch and dinner Sundays.

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