When Enrique Ribadeneira opened the Latin Palace last winter, a restaurant was just part of the total package, which in-cluded a private club, game rooms, live music, salsa dancing and a tapas bar.
The huge space had been a theater, a polka place and a cooking school at one time or another. Ribadeneira turned it into a Caribbean beach, as best he could in the middle of the city. The space is filled with live palms and graceful seaside murals painted by Maryland Institute, College of Art students. The restaurant, Las Palmas, is on the mezzanine. Tables out front are hidden behind a profusion of flower boxes. The Latin Palace is a noble effort, along with the Spanish restaurant Cafe Madrid a couple of doors up, to extend the charms of Fells Point a few blocks farther north.
In opening Las Palmas, Ribadeneira didn't want to compete with his friend Jose Gutierrez, who owns the Madrid, so he planned to offer a menu of Caribbean, South American and Central American food rather than Spanish.
But the reality is that his chef, Jose Villanueva, is Spanish, and most of his cooking is Spanish. You can call a fish dish "Chilean salmon," but with its shrimp and champagne sauce it sounds remarkably like some of the Spanish dishes on the menu.
Villanueva was last seen at Crew's Quarters, a rambling crab house in Essex and an unlikely place for a Spanish chef. He's brought many of his signature dishes here, which seem to involve large quantities of fresh seafood and even more cream.
There are exceptions. But even a special that started with slices of tender pork loin also had a few shrimp and cream sauce. Excellent cream sauce, mind you. But don't expect subtlety here. Green olives added a pleasingly sharp note to the rich, heavy combination.
Much the same combination (with mushrooms substituted for the olives) turned up in veal Las Palmas. Our inexperienced waitress -- this was her first night -- asked how we wanted the veal cooked. We told her to leave it up to the chef. The slender white scallops of veal were tender and cooked perfectly; but any flavor was lost among the shrimp, sherry and slatherings of cream.
If you like the traditional combination of meat, seafood and rice, order the paella valenciana. If you prefer just seafood, paella Jose features perfectly seasoned rice with a creamy lobster sauce, very fresh orange roughy, scallops, shrimp and clams.
Orange roughy turned up again in "tropical orange roughy," which meant there were pineapple rings on top and fried bananas on the side, with a creamy sauce to hold the whole thing together.
Dinners come with rice or pasta and green beans cooked Greek-style (long and slow with tomatoes). Forget your fresh vegetables and vitamins this one evening and give yourself up to heavy cream.
About the closest you'll come to an edible vegetable are the herbs in the fragrant green sauce that bathes the plump, grit-free mussels that are a first course. Equally good are the shrimp in a rich sauce with a garlicky kick. Just be careful you don't overindulge in bread to sop up the sauces.
If those dishes sound like too much of a meal to be starters -- and they are -- try the straightforward, flavorful black bean soup. Except for several different soups, there aren't a lot of other choices for first courses, although fat little Maryland crab balls pleased all of us.
Clearly not many customers get as far as dessert. Las Palmas doesn't specialize in light fare. So it didn't surprise us that to end our meal we were given the choice of only a bakery carrot cake or a homemade flan. We enjoyed every bite of the latter and, to be fair, the cake was fresh.
Our coffee arrived at the table stone cold and black as tar. When one of my guests asked for a fresh cup, the waitress promised to brew him another pot; but his coffee came back to the table so quickly and so exactly the same strength that we could only think it had been microwaved.
Where: Latin Palace, 509 S. Broadway
Hours: Open for lunch Friday through Sunday, dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$8.95; main courses, $14.95-$21.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*