Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Weekend Dining: Two Restaurant Reviews

I ate Spaghetti-O's for dinner on Sunday night. I was busy finishing a project (I do work occasionally) and ran out of time for dinner. But I was hungry. I say this not to elicit sympathy (though I certainly deserve some) but to paint an accurate picture of the crazy disparity of meals I experienced this weekend.

Because right up until I opened that five-year-old can of highly preserved sauce and "pasta", I ate like a queen.

I'll start with Friday night.


Glance around Pazo's open bar/lounge/downstairs dining room and you won't believe you're in Baltimore. We're a town known for our crab cakes, our sports teams, and our hard-working (at least fictionally) police force. But for our hot restaurants? Not so much.

And really, most Baltimore residents are fine with that. Because if we wanted to live in a city full of trendy, scene-y restaurants, we'd all live in New York. Fortunately, Pazo has more to offer than it's low sumptuous couches, it's reservations-for-the-bar policy, and it's moody opium den vibe. It also has kickass food.

Consulting Chef Cindy Wolf is something of a Baltimore industry all by herself. She's probably this city's only powerhouse chef and she does a good job with it. I don't think she's actually in the kitchen at Pazo, but Executive Chef Pete Livolsi, who's worked with Wolf for years, has a ton of talent in his own right. The food at Pazo is outstanding.

Back to Friday night. It was my second visit to Pazo - the first was last July, for Alicia's thirtieth birthday. This time, the occasion was my friend Matt's 31st. Pazo is a great place to go with a group, in part because many of the larger tables are round, which is so conducive to conversation. This Friday, there were six of us.

We'd only made the reservation the day before, so we weren't to arrive until 9 - and we weren't actually seated until about 9:30. No matter, though. The lounge area is very cool and no one was sorry to have a drink before dinner. The hostess showed us to our table, in a small room with four large-ish round tables, just as we were finishing up.

The real work at Pazo comes just after you sit down, once you open the menu. It's Meditteranean tapas - and the menu offers a million choices, nearly all of them sure to be good. On our first visit, last summer, everyone at the table chose a couple of dishes to share. It took us twenty minutes to figure out our order - but we were mostly thrilled with the selection (only one dish, a minty pasta, was not such a hit). Friday night, with an even six at the table, we decided to go with the "Simple Table for Six", a carefully selected and easy to order selection. The decision took us approximately two minutes, and that included careful reading to make sure the selection wasn't too shellfish-heavy. (One of our group - poor, poor Chris - is extremely allergic to shellfish. Cruel that he lives in the shellfish capital of the world, isn't it?)

Only a few minutes after ordering, the wine (one dry Cab and another, softer, Tempranillo) came, along with our first course: thick slices of an earthy, sweet, slightly nutty brown bread and a salad of Manchego and manzana (aka Granny Smith apple). The combination of brightly tart apple and salty cheese was fantastic. The dish was absolutely simple enough to make at home (and I will) but amazing.

The next hour and a half passed in a bit of a blur. A random selection of waiters delivered food to our table every ten or so minutes and every single dish was satisfying. The standouts included super-garlicky shrimp in a tomato sauce, simple but perfect lemony-buttery spinach leaves with pine nuts (they'd obviously just touched a hot pan) and a deliciously savory pizza bianca.

The meal ended with cannoli and three sharp cheese, one of which was an outrageously intense blue (almost purple, really) cheese that smelled and tasted so rich I could've cried. I loved it.

We wrapped dinner up around 11:20 (dining at Pazo is not an in-and-out experience) before heading out to continue our celebration. I can't wait to go back.

Except for one thing. The service. It was...not that great. When we went over the summer, the service was very good. We had an attentive waitress who kept our drinks coming and who carefully explained each dish. Friday, however, we were treated to an endless parade of different wait staff, some of whom gave us elaborate (and helpful) explanations and some of whom just plopped down the dishes. Asking for even a water refill turned into a sport. That was, indeed, a disappointment, especially since Pazo isn't cheap. It's not outrageously expensive, but it's definitely not cheap. Fortunately, it was the only bleak spot.

Verdict: We're so going back. Hopefully sooner rather than later.


Dinner Saturday night wasn't quite as grand or elaborate as Friday, but it was a good meal nonetheless. Sarah and Doug came up to Towson and the four of us went to Paolo's, a small Baltimore-DC area chain of restaurants (owned by a larger company) that do "traditional Italian made California fresh." Which is pretty much exactly what they do.

Cooper and I have been to Paolo's a bunch of times and the food is always good. However, the service always sucks. And I don't mean a little bit. Once, when we were with Cooper's family, it took us over half an hour to get drinks. And it's not that big of a place.

So we were pleasantly surprised to have a friendly, prompt waitress on Saturday night. Our good service might have been on account of Cooper shattering a wine glass thirty seconds after sitting down (I can imagine the manager: "Keep an eye on that table. We need our glassware.) But whatever the reason, it was good.

As was our food. Nothing super fancy, but good. The meal always starts with tasty breadsticks and tapenade (which I'm not into, but I understand is great if you like that sort of thing.) Unfortunately, I can't remember what everyone had, and the menu's not online, but I had a nice filet in a red wine reduction with crispy carrots and fingerling potatoes. The meat was cooked a tiny bit too much, but nothing to complain about. The sauce had a lot of flavor (but wasn't too salty) and was exactly what I was in the mood for.

And, of course, we all ordered dessert. My chocolate ganache-topped bread pudding was outstanding, though so rich I could only eat a tiny bit (Cooper took care of the rest for me.)

Fifteen minutes after retiring to our house for a nightcap, Sarah and I were nearly asleep on the sofa. It was a good meal.

Verdict: We'd go back even if it wasn't five minutes from our house. And hopefully, the service will be just as good on our next visit.

So there it is. The weekend that culminated in Spaghetti-O's. How far I fell.

1 comment:

Moyey said...

Terrific review! Thank you!



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