Points South Latin Kitchen feels like a fit in Fells Point

For The Baltimore Sun
Meli and Anastasia didn't make it in this Fells Point space, but its new restaurant seems like the right fit.

For several years, this space on Thames Street in Fells Point has been trying to find its culinary niche.

At first, Meli — named for the Greek word for honey — took over with Mediterranean-influenced food in 2007. The wrought-iron railing designed in a honeycomb pattern still remains in the dining room.

Then came Anastasia in 2014, serving pizza and Italian dishes but really catering to drinking and dancing — a bar took up a huge chunk of dining real estate. That restaurant didn't last long.

The latest rendition, Points South Latin Kitchen, sets its sights on a different part of the world, this time specializing in Central and South American cuisine. The results, so far, are promising.

The executive chef, Scott Stauber, a Towson University grad, brings a gutsy, trained-on-the-job finesse to the kitchen, enhanced by growing up with his grandmother's Panamanian cooking. He curates an array of ingredients we may only know casually and can barely pronounce, like Cotija (a cheese), Aji Chombo (a type of Scotch bonnet pepper) and sofrito (a vegetable-herb sauce).

But he encourages diners not to be intimidated.

"A lot of people think Latin cuisine is scary, that it's too spicy," Stauber said. "It's more about savoriness."

The restaurant, which opened in late February, is owned by Bryson Keens, a former managing partner at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion in Harbor East. He transformed the restaurant's two floors into a warm, sleek space with wood floors and bare tables. A colorful mural of sketched faces provides a focal point on an upstairs wall.

Points South is a big place with the seating arranged spaciously. It seats 204 inside and 32 on the outdoor patio, and it has a full bar and a lounge separate from the main dining area. While the restaurant has been reinvented, the downstairs men's and women's restrooms still share communal sinks as they did in the days of Meli and Anastasia — in case you were wondering.

Bar manager Greg Raplee embraces the restaurant's Latin concept with his delicious cocktails. Our waiter helped us navigate the drinks menu to La Pena, a white-rum creation with infused vanilla syrup and pineapple that had us longing for summer.

If you're looking for a kick to your taste buds, the ancho paloma with mezcal, chili liqueur, lime and grapefruit will do the trick. Another cocktail, Carnaval, lived up to its festive name with an intriguing elixir of rum, cherry liqueur, Curacao and sparkling cava.

Surprisingly, the red sangria was mediocre.

The wine list is impressive, with dozens of choices from South America. Beer isn't forgotten, with selections like Lagunitas IPA, Tecate, Miller Lite and Raven Special Lager.

Don't be confused by the menu's unfamiliar ingredients and unusual preparations. When ordering your meal, choose a main component you like and trust the chef to bring the dish to fruition.

For instance, the grilled octopus appetizer was stellar, with pepita romesco, green olives, chili-dusted jicama and achiote oil. It was unlike any other version of the dish we've had, with chunks of the tender octopus mixing with the sauce and other elements for an enjoyable burst of intricate flavor.

The cheese-and-Amarillo-pepper-stuffed calamari was another captivating interpretation. It had thick slices of squid plumped like giant pasta shells with the filling and then set around a feathery nest of purslane salad.

The lamb ribs were meaty bones draped in a piquant barbecue-like coating and dotted with garlic chips and slivers of spring scallions. When we asked our server why the dish was called "Denver ribs," he said it was because the city has a lot of sheep.

Each appetizer was prettily plated, especially the white fluke ceviche scattered on a bright red platter. But the raw fish slices with lime, garlic and cilantro were a tad overwhelmed by the citrus notes.

For our main dishes, ubiquitous steak was turned into a powerhouse with parsley-laced chimichurri sauce, grilled spring onions and crispy potatoes on the side. The potatoes were a great mix of textures, with soft cubes and thin, fried slices.

The braised pork shank was a whopping mound of succulent meat atop a pillow of mashed mofongo, or plantains, dressed in a savory sauce. The pork melted off the bones.

Points South does seafood well. The large shrimp in a spicy Peruvian pepper sauce encircled a pile of great-tasting beans and rice capped with crispy slaw for a rich amalgam of flavors.

The shellfish bouillabaisse was presented in a majestic white bowl indicative of the dish's stature. The soup was a successful combination of mussels, shrimp, clams and hunks of snapper in a zingy lime broth.

Desserts by pastry chef Mike Kelly continue the Latin mood with simple but elegant creations. A traditional flan formed into a tidy square was elevated with orange-liqueur caramel and candied orange peel and accompanied by a long, slender churro.

A chocolate marble cake enriched with Venezuelan dark chocolate and dulce de leche was a fabulous ending. And the sweet, moist corn cakes with macerated strawberries were a wonderfully rustic finish to a fun culinary adventure.

Points South Latin Kitchen has a clear-cut vision for its food. The building may finally have found the right compass coordinates.

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Points South Latin Kitchen

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Where: 1640 Thames St.

Contact: 443-563-2018, pointssouthbaltimore.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. dining, 10:30 to midnight bar only Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. brunch Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers $6 to $17; entrees, $25 to $31

Food: Latin cuisine

Noise/TVs: Easy to hold a conversation in the dining room; one TV in the bar, one in the lounge.

Service: Our friendly waiter helped guide us through a menu that includes many ingredients diners may not recognize.

Parking: Valet, street parking, garage.

Special diets: Will work with guests to accommodate allergies.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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