Paladar Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar opened late last summer, just across from Gordon Biersch, in the Annapolis Towne Centre in Parole. We came to Paladar on a weekend, and every inch of its 7,000 square feet was humming. It has the looks of a long-running hit.
This is the second Paladar — the first was opened just outside Cleveland in 2007 by Marty and Andy Himmel, a father-and-son team of restaurant developers, along with a longtime colleague, Ean Carroll, who has now moved to Annapolis to be the general manager of this location.
Accessibility, Carroll told me back in September, was a key component to Paladar's success in Cleveland. Customers are introduced to Paladar's deep shelves of imported rum with well-constructed and cleverly presented rum flights. The menu unapologetically mixes cuisines from Central and South America, Cuba and the Latin Caribbean in a way that purists might find uncomfortable. When they were planning their original restaurant, Carroll told me, the mixed-cuisine approach was much more common in Chicago than in New York, where restaurants maintain rigid culinary borders. So you might call Paladar a Chicago-style, upscale-casual Latin restaurant.
I was taken with Paladar. It's a nice-looking joint, one of the more pleasing and effective uses of a suburban mall space I've seen. Of note are the dramatically striking steel curtain framing the hostess stand and a changing light display on the wall framing the kitchen.
It's also an exquisitely well-managed operation, with an outgoing staff trained to gently walk customers through every step of a pleasant evening. This translated at the table into frequent, but subtly presented, updates on the status of the meal; if this sounds intrusive, it wasn't. It was just courteous.
Likewise, at the very busy bar, where we ordered a round of opening appetizers, a question about the guacamole's freshness was answered, warmly, with specific detail and pride. You see, the guacamole, which is served in a molcajete (a stone mortar and pestle), with homemade chips made from plantains, yucca, wheat tortilla and malanga (or taro), was surpassingly fresh, so much so that I asked how it could stay that way. The answer: "It's made fresh continuously throughout the day." Making the guacamole is one person's sole assignment at Paladar; so is, we were told, the muddling of the ingredients for Paladar's delicious mojitos.
Those barside drinks and appetizers made a very nice first impression. The guacamole was a major hit; so were two other bar appetizers. First, a bar-only version of Paladar's mini tacos, served on crunchy malanga shells, stuffed with jalapeno-spiked beef and accompanied by a refreshing pineapple and jicama slaw; and next, a persuasively rich and robust chorizo and Chihuahua cheese papusa, layered on stone-ground plantain and seared corn cakes.
The good news about Paladar's food continues throughout most of the meal, with only occasional disconcerting notes and just one outright flop — an unattractively mushy salad of hearts of palms, diced mango, avocado and black beans.
An appetizer of crispy calamari, served with a mango-chimichurri sauce, was first among the successes. I liked the play of crunchy jicama, cilantro and pickled jalapenos; chopping them more finely would integrate their flavors more fully, though. A nicely tricked-out ceviche trio — shrimp with tamarind citrus marinade; sweet and spicy salmon with pickled red onions, jalapeno and pineapple; and, the best of the three, tuna and watermelon with a sweet chili vinaigrette — spoke better of the kitchen's attention to details.
The balance of the menu divides up into sections of seafood, steaks and chops, Latin comfort food and less-expensive alternatives, a classic Cubano or fish tacos, that the menu groups under "sandwiches."
A jalapeno-cilantro broth came close to overpowering a lamb stew, which had enough going on already with cinnamon rice pilaf, crumbled queso fresco and pico de gallo. Frankly, it was a bit much, but I'd rather see a place like Paladar err on the side of wackiness over caution. Sometimes, everything works, and a dish is both interesting and in balance. I loved the plancha-roasted scallops basted in a pluckily assertive sofrito, served with a roasted cauliflower and fingerling potatoes, and finished, smartly, with slivers of preserved lemon and a mellow Peruvian Huancaina sauce.
Straightforward fare works well, too, like the adobo-crusted strip steak, served over a hash of grilled sweet potatoes, roasted fingerlings and plantains, or the house's ropa vieja, which needs only a bit more kick in its aji pepper sauce to feel like home cooking.
At first glance, the dessert list looks like a crowd-pleaser — churros, dulce de leche cheesecake and three-layer chocolate cake. But there's more. Rum-soaked raisins brighten a warm and very soft Cuban bread pudding, and macerated berries perk up an excellent coconut and custard flan. (Actually, the berries belong with the homemade cheesecake; putting them with the flan, which usally gets a sweet caramel sauce, was our idea.)
I was taken with Paladar, which was succeeding during our visit as a date-night destination, a festive location for large birthday parties and, at the bar, a gathering spot for singles, all of whom seemed at home in the jazzy, uplifting atmosphere.
Where: 1905 Towne Centre Blvd., Suite 100, Parole
Contact: 410-897-1022, paladarlatinkitchen.com
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7.95-$12.95 Entrees, $15.95-$28.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭