Restaurant review: Little to love about unfocused fare at Te Amo

The Pelotas de Carne, Spanish meatballs with marinara sauce, featured at the Canton restaurant/piano bar, Te Amo.
The Pelotas de Carne, Spanish meatballs with marinara sauce, featured at the Canton restaurant/piano bar, Te Amo. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

Opening a restaurant is no easy undertaking. Finding the right mix of food, decor and staff is hard enough, but making sure everything runs smoothly takes extreme focus. Te Amo, a new Spanish tapas restaurant and piano bar on O'Donnell Square in Canton, seems a bit preoccupied.

Housed in the space that used to be Cosmopolitan, Te Amo is split into a downstairs bar area and an upstairs open dining room and piano bar. You can seat yourself on either floor. But the a lack of a hostess in the front or at the top of the stairs can make it confusing.

Once we seated ourselves upstairs, we noticed the piano in the corner of the room. Our cheerful server, who was attentive and quick with a joke, informed us about the entertainment for the night: Piano music is played Wednesdays through Sundays starting at 8 p.m. The piano player, our waiter said, would be playing "name that tune" for free drinks. His renditions of '70s and '80s rock classics seemed an odd choice for a Spanish tapas bar, but he turned out to be cheeky and entertaining.

Owners Steven and Bethann Heintzelman are juggling Te Amo, which opened in February, with several other projects: a soon-to-be-opened gourmet hot dog bar nearby, and a new restaurant and separate piano bar at Scarlett Place in Harbor East. Maybe this is why the cuisine at Te Amo is so unfocused. The tapas restaurant-meets-piano bar theme seems a bit forced. As does the grand piano that is dropped in under a TV at the top of the steps on the second floor.

On Wednesdays, the night we went, Te Amo has half off wine and sangria. This is a great deal if you want to sample their wine list. We decided on the White Sangria. Light and sweet, it tasted of peaches, a lot of triple sec and not much white wine. At $13.50 it's not a bad value, but its regular price of $27 is too much.

The first item from the menu was the Paella Valencia ($25). This dish, made for two, was a hint of what lay ahead: The food at Te Amo is not very Spanish. This large bowl was soupy and distinctly Italian. The overcooked chicken, mussels, clams, and fish all swam in a puddle of mushy rice and marinara sauce. Paella, which is traditionally crisp on the bottom from the pan it is cooked and served in, was nowhere in this interpretation.

Marinara sauce was a recurring theme through the meal. The Clams and Mussels Fra Diavilo ($12) is another Italian recipe that featured overdone seafood doused in marinara sauce — this time spiced up with cayenne pepper. Yet another course with marinara was the Pelotas de Carne ($10). These meatballs were the highlight of the dinner. The pillowy globes were superbly cooked and delicious — a great plate of food.

Other items we tried were inept to the point of irresponsibility. The Pescado ($12) was a soggy, poorly fried piece of fish that was served with a feeble sauce made of tartar sauce and hard-boiled egg. It needed to be fried longer to crisp the crust. The egg and potato in the Tortilla de Patates ($6) were dry and gluey; a side sauce would have been welcome here.

The Asparagus Wrap ($12) is a duo of wraps consisting of a piece of asparagus wrapped in 3 slices of Italian lunchmeat, grilled and topped with cheese and another asparagus spear. The whole dish is finished with a signature blackberry wasabi sauce. The asparagus was lost in the salty and caramelized lunchmeats, and the sauce tasted like melted blackberry jam mixed with wasabi powder. Three toothpicks that held the lunchmeat together were almost missed in the dim lighting.

An order of the Scallop Wrapped Lollipops ($10) also had the blackberry sauce and toothpicks. The bacon was leathery and hard to cut, and the scallops were cooked too long.

The dinner ended on a high note, when the rice pudding we ordered became unavailable and the French Vanilla Orange Cake ($8) replaced it. This gigantic slice of house-made cake could have fed four people and had mandarin slices and a rich vanilla icing. It was decorated with a drizzle of the infamous blackberry sauce (this time without the wasabi). After such a meal, the moist cake was more than welcome.

Te Amo has to take a hard look at what it is and decide what to do to fix it. A good start would be to institute a menu full of authentic Spanish tapas. Given all the competition on Canton Square, Te Amo's hit-or-miss food and inflated prices just won't do. Hopefully, the restaurant's owners can remedy the situation soon.

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Te Amo

Where: 2933 O'Donnell St.

Contact: 410-276-0383

Kitchen hours: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Credit Cards: Visa, American Express, MasterCard

Plates: $6-$25


Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]