There are hot summer nights in Chesapeake country when you just don't feel like committing to anything. Staying in for dinner, never mind cooking it, seems unthinkable. But after a hard day of slogging through the sultry air, the idea of sitting down for a full restaurant meal isn't a real turn-on either.
That's what makes a tapas restaurant like Tapas Adela, which opened in the fall of 2009, such an appealing summertime alternative. You can wander in, grab some savory snacks like cured meats, cheeses, olives and cured anchovies, sip on a glass of sangria, and see how you feel about life.
Then, if you like, you can start ordering up some more substantial dishes, which at Tapas Adela include salads, soups, and a selection of 20 or so small plates. These are grilled, roasted and baked dishes, which are divided up on Tapas Adela's single-sheet menu of Spanish cuisine into sections of Mariscos, La Tierra and El Campo — from the sea, from the land and from the field.
This works well enough, especially when the offerings are as satisfying as the tender grilled calamari, which gets sauteed with mild Spanish padron peppers; or as creative as crispy, gently fried artichoke hearts, which are accompanied, smartly, by a balsamic vinegar syrup; or as finely prepared as the roasted lamb chops, which the menu lets you order just one of, or as many as you like.
But on the fringes of a meal at Tapas Adela are things that fall into a broad category of not bad, but not very compelling either. These include an innocuous flatbread smothered with crab dip and Manchego cheese, which our waiter suggested we try, and large ravioli filled with butternut squash and mascarpone cheese, served in an herbed brown butter sauce, which were tasty but a little rich for a summer menu.
That's part of the problem. Tapas Adela feels a little stuck in gear, maybe a little complacent. It's not unusual for a tapas restaurant to stick with a core menu of house favorites, but you'd like to see Tapas Adela supplement its standard list with some specials, and you especially want to see that in the middle of Maryland summer, when luscious vegetables are peaking.
Occasionally, this absence of verve comes close to something like lassitude. This would include the plato de comenzar, a chef's selection of cheese, charcuterie and savory snacks, which on two occasions was assembled without any flair and presented without explanation — we had to ask both times for a detailed description of the cheeses and meats on our plate.
With only three options, dessert at Tapas Adela feels especially half-hearted. The flan is passable, the pound cake was stale. We passed on the churros with chocolate sauce.
As for sipping, there is sangria, in white, red and sparkling versions, poured by the glass and by the pitcher. The red sangria is agreeably fruity with a nice tartness. The entirely Spanish wine list is divided into regions of Spain. Here, some taste notes would help.
Tapas Adela is from the Kali's Restaurant Group, which operates four other properties in Fells Point, all within two blocks of one another: Kali's Court and its small-plates sidekick Mezze, Anastasia Italian Bistro & Lounge and the Admiral's Cup.
I mention them because Tapas Adela, which is located within a historic hotel property on the corner of Broadway and Thames Street, felt on two recent visits like it was lost in the Kali's mix.
Tapas Adela felt too like the kind of somewhat impersonal hotel restaurant where diners aren't expected to show up looking for culinary adventures, or even to ask many questions about the menu. Our waiter seemed surprised we were so curious, and reluctant to even suggest spicy menu items.
On one visit, the air conditioning wasn't working, which can happen, except the staff seemed content to let diners notice it for themselves. There is optional seating at sidewalk tables and in an interior courtyard, which we had forgotten existed and no one at Tapas Adela mentioned on our visits.
On the other hand, the dining rooms, which are glossy and sleek, with a Spanish-influenced black-and-red color scheme, are still in fine shape. We enjoyed being here on a weeknight, but we'd be more likely to come back if Tapas Adela shook itself out of its doldrums.
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 814 S. Broadway, Fells Point
Contact: 410-534-6262, tapasadela.com
Open: 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to midnight Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $4:95-$9:95; entrees: $8.95-$14.95.
Food: Spanish-inspired small plates of meats, seafood and vegetables.
Service: Brisk but at times perfunctory.
Parking: Valet parking for $8 is available after 5 p.m., otherwise metered street parking and paid lots.
Outdoor dining: There is seating for 26 on the sidewalk and 28 in an interior courtyard.
Children: There is no children's menu, but the kitchen can adjust menu items for small appetites.
Special diets: Vegetarian items are marked on the menu.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation was fine in the main dining spaces. There is one television in the bar area, with the volume typically turned low.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3 ; Good: 2 ; Promising: 1]
Nearby Baltimore Sun restaurant reviews: Dish Baltimore - Fells Point