For atmosphere alone, the new waterfront restaurant Barcocina is worth a visit.
But you can't eat atmosphere. And the great news is that the food at Barcocina — pronounced bar-co-SEEN-ah, the name is a portmanteau word combining "bar" and "cocina," Spanish for "kitchen" — is excellent. The chef is Marc Dixon, who won praise for his work at Bistro Blanc in Glenelg, and he has fantastic ideas about how to make casual dining inventive, fun and memorable.
The concept is tricky. Barcocina is not a Mexican restaurant, although its menu is informed and inspired by traditional Mexican cuisine, with sections devoted to tacos, guacamole and salsa. But the ingredients, and the composition of these dishes, are surprising, idiosyncratic and delicious. This is good food speaking clearly in a Mexican vernacular but with a contemporary American accent.
Take the dandy Barcocina guacamole, which is chunked with shallots and roasted garlic and drizzled with a tantalizing balsamic and lime sauce spiked with mild pasilla peppers. Or how about a full-bodied salsa with complex notes of charred tomato, bacon and cocoa powder, and a taco filled with sashimi tuna, dressed with yuzu cream and garnished with pickled green papaya and a kimchee salsa?
I hope these don't sound froufrou or lah-di-dah. They're not. See for yourself. You can make dinner here out of dips, tacos, salads and appetizers. I recommend the drunken oysters drenched in tequila and served in square glasses intended for shooting; the ancho shrimp quesadilla with its dressing of queso, sweet corn and salsa verde; a green mango and jicama salad flavored with chopped jalapeno and cilantro; and the tacos filled with meaty, cumin-spiked mushrooms.
You might not get around to the small listing of entrees on a first visit, but go back for the seared scallops, served on black rice with a scattering of toasted pine nuts, with a citrus-garlic-olive oil sauce; or go for the smothered chicken sopes, bone-in thighs in a roasted tomato salsa, brightened with a chipotle crema and finished with a dash of truffle oil.
I wonder, though, whether the first generation of Barcocina visitors will come away talking not about the great food but about the location. It wouldn't surprise me.
For my money, this might be the one of the most charming restaurant locations on the East Coast. It looks out directly on the compact harbor of Fells Point, and diners see pleasure craft in the near distance, and across the way, a shimmering mix of the contemporary and the industrial, including the occasional massive tanker docked at the Domino Sugars plant.
It was one of the great mysteries, then, why the former tenants of this space in the Brown's Wharf complex — the most recent was Shuckers — never capitalized on this location, which sits alongside the historic Fells Point Pier.
This issue has been fixed by the space's new tenants, who also operate nearby Bond Street Social. They have done a masterful job in reconstructing the restaurant space so that it, at last, orients all of the action toward the water. This was not so before, when the outside spaces seemed half-considered, and when many interior spaces were like the steerage levels on a cruise ship — no water views.
At Barcocina, the outdoor dining spaces are fully equipped and comfortable, and there are clear views of the harbor from nearly every space inside the impressively designed new interior, which conveys the feel of a sleek yacht without resorting to cheap effects such as portholes and hanging fish nets.
The environment is seamless between inside and out, between bar and dining room. Some diners might wish for a more clearly defined barrier between bar and dining room — it was very loud on an early Saturday afternoon.
There's good news from start to finish at Barcocina, beginning with the cocktail list, which offers such bracing variations on the old standards as a margarita en fuego, a real beauty, topped with a pillow of jalapeno foam, and continues right through dessert, where the fine options include a surpassingly rich tres leches cake and the best version of a strawberry shortcake I've ever had in Baltimore — a lovely plating of tequila-scented, cinnamon-flavored strawberries on a dense, sugar-dusted homemade doughnut.
Dixon's food is supported by an energetic and knowledgeable staff, crisp as a bay breeze in their blue-and-white checked shirts.
The next time you have out-of-town guests in town, take them here. They'll seethe with envy. Barcocina is a wonder, and it makes you feel grand to live in a waterfront town like Baltimore.
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 1629 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 410-563-8800, barcocina.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $10-$16; sandwiches: $19-$26
Food: Mexican-inspired contemporary cuisine
Service: On point and enthusiastic.
Parking: Paid parking lots and garages are close by, as is metered street parking.
Outdoor dining: The 92-seat patio wraps around two sides of the main dining floor. All outdoor seats have water views.
Children: A children's menu is offered upon request, and the restaurant has high chairs and booster seats.
Special diets: The staff is prepared to offer gluten-free/vegetarian from the menu and to suggest modifications to menu items.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation was challenging. Five television sets, with volume turned off, hang near the main bar, with two more in the side bar.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]