Canton has landed a winner. Alma Cocina Latina, a new 90-seat Venezuelan restaurant in the Can Company, is the best restaurant to open for years in the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood.
The restaurant opened in late April and already appears to have a following.
Part of Alma's rapid popularity is from earned good will. The proprietor, Irena Stein, is well known on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus for her two cafes, Alkimia, a cafe in Gilman Hall, and, particularly, Cafe Azafran, located in the Space Telescope Science Institute. Stein, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, lived in Paris and Brussels before settling in Baltimore. She worked as a jewelry designer before opening Azafran in 2002, and you can tell she has an artist's eye. Even Alma's website is ravishing.
Her two cafes, and now Alma, Stein's first full-service restaurant, are strikingly cosmopolitan. Alma, which took over space formerly occupied by Soyombo Grille, BangBang Mongolian Grille and Austin Grill, is nobody's idea of a grill. The white-walled, terrazzo-floored space has the brushed good looks you see in travel brochures.
Stein designed the space with her architect husband, Mark Demshak, in cooperation with SMP Architects. Decor is minimal, and lovely, with a profusion of green, thriving potted plants. On one wall, leafy plants spill out of large coffee containers hung in a free-form pattern. A muted painting anchors an opposite wall. There is clutter nowhere, not on the shelves behind the long white bar, not on the simply set tabletops and not on the plates themselves.
In the far corner, across from the main bar, a row of sea foam-shaded bar stools are set along the counter of a small, open kitchen area. This is where Alma prepares its signature dish, arepas, a staple of daily dining in Venezuela and Colombia. Arepas are round breads that are grilled, baked and stuffed with all manner of delicious things; you eat them as you would a pita sandwich or taco.
The food, like the atmosphere at Alma, is cosmopolitan. There are two executive chefs at Alma, Enrique Limardo and Federico Tischler, natives of Venezuela, who have worked extensively in Europe and South America. Their dozen arepas include traditional examples and others that are unique to Alma. The Nacional is filled with tender marinated beef, plantains, black beans and cilantro. Luis Brito's Pig is stuffed with pulled pork, avocado puree and tomato mojo, a zesty sauce made from tomatoes and pimento. There are vegetarian and vegan arepas, too.
The arepas are delicious. The shell, made from white corn flour and grilled to order, has the appeal of a well-made corn cake. (The grill, which looks like it was custom-built for Alma, is a holdover from Soyombo Grille). And they are filling. You could order two of them — along with a fruity margarita made with agave nectar, or a rich mojito made with coconut rum — and call it a dinner.
But don't. There's much more to try. There is a small selection of antojos, or appetizers. Get the strips of fried yuca for dipping in a perky cilantro sauce, and a basket of crispy cassava bread served with black bean butter and cilantro mojo. Order up a plate of golden-baked empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, or pork and a spinach-mushroom queso blanco.
And if you're still feeling peckish, try a hot dog. A street fare staple in Caracas, where there's a different variation on every corner, the perro caliente is topped at Alma with a sweet-corn cream sauce, a strong mustard-y relish and slices of aji dulce, a sweet chili grown for Alma at One Straw Farm. It is topped, Caracas-style, with potato chips.
There are a scattering of soups and salads to try. A tangerine emulsion brightens a cream of squash soup. A tangerine dressing does likewise for the small house green salad, which arrives covered with chopped fresh herbs.
And there are lovely and very fresh preparations of ceviche. The rich and dusky vuelve a la vida was a bowl of mixed seafood in a spicy tomato sauce, with a crispy arepa shell and root-vegetable chips. The beautiful pesca del dia features a seasonal fish in homemade tiger's milk — a citrus-based marinade, with pureed sweet potatoes and a vivid green mango jelly.
There is a very small selection of large, entree-sized fare, although you'd have to make a concerted effort to include them in your meal. The bisteck "a la caballo" — grilled and sliced flank steak topped "cowboy-style" with two perfect fried eggs — was served with yuca fries, bone marrow puree, onion compote and guasacaca, a Venezuelan avocado salsa. The showpiece, which we saw but didn't order, is a crispy whole dorada fish.
You'll want dessert. The quesillo tradicional is a long and narrow slice of rich Venezuelan flan. The spectacular mango goat cheese cheesecake applies mango foam, mango ceviche and candied hazelnuts to a plump slice of Charlottetown Farm's already magnificent cheesecake.
There is thoughtfulness everywhere, like the nonalcoholic limeade and pineapple drink listed on the drinks menu. The servers are good about offering suggestions and gently explaining the cuisine in a way that doesn't make a diner feel ignorant.
Alma, which means "soul" in Spanish, is the perfect name for this stylish and substantive restaurant, which nourishes the eyes and mind as well as the body. If there's a little overnourishment for the ears — Alma is loud — it's because diners are having such a great time.