In a matter of weeks, La Cuchara — the name is Spanish for "spoon" — has ripened into a mature, engaging restaurant. The kitchen, led by chef-owner Ben Lefenfeld, is turning out good, hearty and interesting food from a menu inspired by the Basque cuisine.
People are having fun at La Cuchara, really enjoying themselves, in that way diners do when they feel like they're in good hands. Crowds have discovered this new Basque-inspired restaurant. It's packing them in, as they say, and there's plenty of space for people to pack into.
The setting for La Cuchara is the Meadow Mill complex, a former manufacturing building best known as the former home of the London Fog factory. It's massively proportioned, as long as it is wide, which is very. If, in spite of its size, La Cuchara feels intimate, it's a testament to both sophisticated interior design and to the remarkably kind and patient service.
The Basque region, which straddles the border area between Spain and France, is famed for its pintxo bars and asadors. The former is, traditionally, an informal tavern that serves a variety of pintxos — very small, one- or two-bite appetizers. The latter is a type of restaurant specializing in simple meats and seafood prepared on a grill, or asador.
La Cuchara combines the pintxo bar and asador into a seamless whole, and you can approach it as one or the other, or both at the same time. The interior is divvied up into three parts. In the center, where guests enter, is an enormous area that houses the bar — I think it's the biggest in Baltimore — and the open kitchen, which sits at the back, glowing from the heat of a massive asador.
To the left of the central area is a crisp and pretty dining room, with white-washed walls and comfortable, simple furnishings. On the other side is another long dining room, with a more casual feel, that La Cuchara opens when the other spaces are filled.
The bar itself is a chestnut-trimmed, stainless-steel-surfaced beauty, with room in between its two long sides for a small colony of bartenders to shake, stir and muddle cocktails. These cocktails are worth your attention. Absolutely try one by the name of False Idol, which combines bourbon, fresh lemon juice and agave nectar into a sublimely sunny version of the old whiskey sour.
The bar seats 40 people comfortably, and there is room for another 40 at small tables lining either side. And while you're sipping a cocktail, or a glass of sparkling wine, which, like all the wine at La Cuchara, is imported from Spain or France, order a round of pintxos, or two or three, and see where the night takes you. The menu, like the physical space, is also divided in three — after the pintxos are tapas, which are small, shareable plates, and entrees from the wood grill.
There is on any given night at La Cuchara a selection of eight pintxos, each of which of is $2. These change, almost nightly. Grilled asparagus has come and gone. Beets, seasoned with sumac. There is typically a skewer of Manchego cheese, but what it gets skewered with changes.
On a recent visit, it was cherries, which had been preserved in sherry. There is always a little Spanish-style tortilla, like a tiny square omelet, which was dressed with a rich Serrano ham aioli on a recent visit, and always some kind of croquette, which may be filled with ham or, if you're lucky, onion and melted Gruyere.
Pintxos are fun, sociable things, and I like how La Cuchara doesn't go overboard with them. There's no foam and no tricks, and most of them are assembled and plated at the bar. The pintxos also lull you into ordering more cocktails, more wine and more cider, and before you know it, you've moved onto the tapas and wood-grilled entrees.
The menu remains simple on its surface. Most items can be described, accurately, with three or four short phrases. The duck leg confit is served with Parisian gnocchi. It's rather perfect, though, with glistening, crispy-skin duck, the meat tender underneath
The offerings of tapas and wood-grilled entrees, like those of the pintxos, change constantly, too. Bummer. I flipped my beret for the Morcilla, a type of blood sausage, which La Cuchara served in a skillet with sliced Fuji apple, onions and crispy potatoes. When you mashed up the sausage and folded over the potatoes, everything got wonderfully rich and greasy.
A very few things seemed too simple. A halibut, served with spring onions and saffron aioli, was flat-tasting. Migas, a traditional breakfast dish of potatoes, onions and chorizo, would make a better appetizer than an entree.
Desserts are straightforward and delicious things like canneles, cylindrical caramelized pastries filled with custard; a rich chocolate cake, served when we visited with strawberry ice cream; and the house specialty, cinnamon churros, served with warm chocolate.
You're tempted to call this food rustic, but a great deal of sophistication is behind a grilled lamb dish, which features a tender lamb loin, encircled in a strip of lamb bacon, and a gorgeous rectangle of layered sweet potato slices.
Still, at its best, the food at La Cuchara has you believing it made itself, which is a compliment to the chef. The former executive chef at Petit Louis, Lefenfeld has assembled a team of professionals, in front and back, whose enthusiasm for everything at this thoroughly engaging new restaurant is sincere and charming.