Sitting at the 40-seat, steel-top bar at La Cuchara on a recent weeknight, a couple cocktails in, I wondered: Does it get much better than this?
It's a thought I've had more than once at this gem of a restaurant and bar in the Jones Falls Area, less than half a mile from Woodberry Kitchen. At some point during my visits here, I usually remind myself to wipe the satisfied grin from my face. It rarely works.
Opened in April 2015 by brothers Jake and Ben Lefenfeld and the latter's wife, Amy Lefenfeld, La Cuchara is one of Baltimore's most rewarding experiences based on life's simplest pleasures — eating and drinking. Every aspect, from service and ambience to the high-quality products and concoctions, is done with a flair that reflects La Cuchara's obvious attention to detail, while sidestepping any traces of pretension.
It is a reminder of why we still choose to treat ourselves, however rarely, to expensive nights out.
La Cuchara ("spoon" in Spanish) draws its inspiration from the Basque Country, the region in the western Pyrenees between northern Spain and southern France. If you're unfamiliar with the area, don't feel the need to rush to Wikipedia. One of the most striking elements of La Cuchara is the knowledge of its genial staff, including those behind the bar.
On this visit, a friend and I made our curiosity known, and our bartender provided both a history lesson — demographics, its autonomy — and a detailed hand-holding through the food and drink menu. It felt comprehensive, and nearly overwhelming, but there was no knocking the intention. La Cuchara wants visitors to know why it constructs its menus the way it does for the simple fact that context enriches a concept and, often, its execution.
This is a review of La Cuchara's bar program, so that's where the emphasis will remain. But it should be noted the beauty here is the totality of the experience. To order drinks and not indulge in at least a couple of pintxos ($2-$4), the one-bite appetizers of Basque cuisine, would be a sorely missed opportunity. Indulge a bit.
While chef Ben Lefenfeld leads the open kitchen, Jake is responsible for the bar. The atmosphere is lively and noisy, which more often than not works for me. Those searching for quiet, however, might struggle by the bar.
Ownership visited the Basque Country a year before La Cuchara's opening, and Jake was determined to have the bar program reflect what they saw, which means a wide selection of gin, vermouth and Armagnac brandy. The menu featured 16 vermouths ($7-$9), the fragrant fortified wine, all served over ice with soda water, olive and an orange peel.
On this trip, though, we found it impossible to diverge from the cocktails (all $11).
The False Idol has earned a reputation as one of the city's best bourbon drinks. A lesson in sublime simplicity, its combination of Buffalo Trace bourbon, agave and charred lemon peel required nothing else. If you enjoy Old-Fashioneds, this is where to start.
There's no shortage of creativity either. With help from his brother, Jake reimagined a cocktail La Cuchara opened with, called Bull's Blood, essentially a gin and tonic with beet juice.
Over time, they had grown bored with it, so they created a beet tarragon espuma (a foam with a bit more body to it) that now sits atop Green Hat Gin and Jack Rudy Tonic like a scoop of gelato, slowly melting into the clear liquid. It's called a Sangre del Toro, and it pleases the palate as much as it does the eye.
La Cuchara shows off the flexibility of gin, a spirit I often take for granted. The Flutter, made of Death's Door Gin and the liqueurs St. Germain and Crème Yvette, was a smooth melding of botanical flavors like elderflower and violet.
Of course, there's beer, too — a can and bottle collection of more than a dozen ($7-$15) that includes Union Craft Brewing options (produced around the corner) and options from Spain, France, Belgium and Germany. The lone beer on tap, a quaint touch, was Union's dark lager Blackwing. Beer is not the focus here, and I wasn't complaining.
For a final touch, and a slight infusion of drama, try a bottle of cider (split between French ciders, which are $20 to $29, and Spanish sidras, $8 to $29).
In the summer, sitting outside on the patio with friends, we ordered a bottle of Trabanco Natural, a refreshingly tart drink. The sommelier made it a show, pouring from a porron, a glass vessel that looks like it belongs in a chemistry set. As he poured, the server held his hands as far apart as he could, creating a long stream. It was flashy, but also practical, as Jake later explained it's meant to aerate the cider to open up its flavors. In the Basque region, he said, young imbibers compete for the longest pour from a porron, like American frat dudes chug beers.
At La Cuchara, no detail is too small to ignore. Taken as a whole, the bar and restaurant represents some of the best Baltimore's dining scene has to offer. It's not cheap, but I'd bet you won't be thinking of the bill on your way out.