The Luna family has built a deep reservoir of good will with their two Pikesville-area restaurants. Mari Luna Mexican Grill, which opened to great acclaim in fall 2004, has remained a steadily performing purveyor of quality Mexican food. Its more stylish follow-up, Mari Luna Latin Grille, casts a wider culinary net, stretching across the cuisines of the Caribbean and South America.
When it was announced late last year that a third Mari Lunawould be taking over the restaurant space across from the Meyerhoff, it sounded like a perfect fit. Here at last were restaurant operators with a record of making customers happy. It had been a long wait. This multilevel, wedge-shaped restaurant, remembered fondly as Ethel's Place, last thrived when it was Spike & Charlie's, which closed in fall 2004. The seven years since then have seen a succession of restaurant operators brought to their knees, stumped by the location's eternal puzzle: How do we fill this place up when the symphony's not in town?
The menu at Mari Luna Bistro, a "cocina Mexicana" that opened at the end of February, resembles that of the original Mexican Grill much more than the Latin Grille. That makes sense, as do the menu's moderate prices, entrees mostly in the teens, with plenty of other a la carte options like enchiladas and burritos. Even with a margarita, you could fashion yourself a complete meal for $25 or so, which rates as a good deal in a cultural center neighborhood.
Unexpectedly, though, hardly anything is working right at Mari Luna Bistro. Jaime Luna's food, which has pleased me so much in the past, is tentatively presented here. The service veers wildly from the accomplished, especially at the remodeled curvilinear bar, to the bewildered, or at least poorly trained.
Cosmetic changes made since the flight of the previous tenant, Robert Oliver Seafood, signal a more casual attitude. But the main dining room, colorful in that canned festive way, can't seem to shrug off a pervasive drabness. Muddy carpeting doesn't help, and neither does the piped-in music, which resorts too easily to tinny Mexican music.
A few menu items are working. The shrimp sauteed in olive oil, lime and garlic, a carryover from the original Mexican Grill menu, is still a deeply delicious appetizer. I love the variety of taco fillings — cow tongue, braised lamb shank, shredded pork and, best of all, strips of succulent red snapper, served with pico de gallo and yellow peppers. The tacos are well-prepared and handsomely presented.
Worth knowing, too, is the guacamole: The menu lists seven variations of the basic recipe (e.g., Puebla style with leeks and poblano peppers and Azteca style with pumpkin seed and goat cheese), which are prepared in their own molcajete station at the back of the dining room. In successive visits, the guacamole has been served with warm tortillas, homemade tortilla chips, a combination of both — and once, nothing at all. They are also served, or sometimes not, with a trio of condiments, a tomatillo and habanero salsa, a chipotle salsa, and the house's somewhat wan and watery basic salsa. Their presence, though, is confusing; the guacamole works fine without them.
I can't recommend three other appetizers. While a ceviche of scallop, shrimp and tilapia had fresh flavors, it was presented indifferently, without finesse. Really, it was thrown in a bowl. Another appetizer conceals perfectly tasty morsels of chicharrones, fried pork belly, with a layer of bland black beans and piles them all atop a mushy corn tortilla. Pickled red onions, mentioned on the menu, weren't included. The Tingas de Pollo layers chipotle chicken with cheese, beans, avocado and sour cream on top of corn tortillas, and the result is a colorless pile of bland flavors.
Entrees don't look right. The accompanying beans and rice were plated separately from the main items, and our choices, a pumpkin seed-encrusted salmon, the half chicken in mole sauce and the braised lamb shank, looked naked by themselves. I worry that Mari Luna is pandering to customers who don't like their foods touching. Of the three, the best, by far, was the tender and savory lamb shank, which I would love to see starring in a fully composed entree. The salmon was dull, not enlivened at all by a lime sauce, and the chicken was worse — it was disagreeable. A mole sauce should be complex, but this one was acrid and perfumey, overpowered by cinnamon notes.
Fajitas, the one item that should do a little pandering, don't. Like it or not, the truth is that unless it comes out sizzling, it's not a real fajita. The version here doesn't doesn't offer anything interesting in its place. It comes across as lonely-guy food.
Dessert here feels ordinary — passable versions of flan and tres leches cake, but nothing you'd be humming about on your way over to the Meyerhoff. Even the drinks menu seems off-message. It lists only a basic margarita and pays only fleeting attention to tequila. Featured instead are the mojito and caipirinha, cocktails that have little to do with Mexico.
Mostly, Mari Luna Bistro seems uncertain about its role in the cultural center, and there are signs of a rushed opening: a bad sightline from the bar into the kitchen, confusion among the staff about the menu, a still nonfunctioning website. This is understandable; a restaurant has to open to make money. My hunch is that the restaurant's fans will be willing to give Mari Luna some leeway until it rights itself.
But it had better hurry.
• You be the critic: Write your own review for Mari Luna Bistro.
Where: 1225 Cathedral St.
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesdays-Sundays, lunch Tuesdays-Fridays and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$12 Entrees, $15-$25
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]