To appreciate Red Tapas in the Redwood Trust fully, you have to rethink how you eat out. It works best if you remember that Redwood Trust is primarily a dance club, so its restaurant isn't a traditional restaurant. It's a place to get upscale appetizers and hors d'oeuvres.
Food, in other words, isn't the primary objective here -- at least not after 10 p.m. Dancing the night away is, or drinking at the handsome bar. Mingling with the beautiful people. Enjoying the J-Lo bikini fashion show. (I didn't know about the show until I ran into one of the models in the ladies room. She was wearing a pink bikini, and it was kind of startling on a wintry, late-February evening.)
Still, the Red Tapas menu is surprisingly stylish and free of bar food. I can't imagine this will last, given young Baltimoreans' fondness for wings and crab dip, but right now you have an inventive selection of small plates to choose from. Before the nightclub cranks up, you're as likely to hear Frank Sinatra on the spectacular sound system as 50 Cent, so the place must be trying to expand its customer base.
The restaurant is run by Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions Catering. Having a caterer do this kind of food seems just right: You feel as if you're at a cocktail party, although most of it isn't quite finger food.
Start by ordering a drink from the appealing wine list, which is short but offers half glasses, full glasses, flights, splits, half bottles and full bottles. Red wines come in a glass big enough to take a bath in. Or, of course, you can get one of the trendy martinis like the Ruby Red Tapas, made with Grey Goose vodka, raspberry liqueur and Grand Marnier. Then settle down with the tapas menu and choose a couple of dishes, planning to have more later. And ask for the seafood cart to be brought around. That way you can start immediately with slippery sweet oysters on the half shell or gigantic rosy-pink shrimp. (Order one or a half dozen, whatever strikes your fancy.)
Almost everything is under $10, but the tab will mount up because you won't be able to stop ordering with just two, especially if your choice includes the three bite-sized pieces of beef Wellington with a flaky puff pastry and zingy horseradish cream or the firm white chunks of rockfish in an herb crust that shows up with an addictive rice pilaf.
Style is almost as important as the very real substance. Yes, it tastes good; but the food comes in white shell-shaped bowls or triangular plates with garnishes and frills. Some of it is over the top, but it's a lot of fun. You could, for instance, have garlic mashed potatoes with a spoonful of mushroom ragout at their center served in a martini glass. Or burritos stuffed with lobster meat and garnished with crisp leaves of fried spinach.
There are a couple of offbeat salads like the chilled blue cheese mousse set among greens with slices of pear, and vegetable dishes like asparagus roasted in the oven with grilled onions. My personal favorite was the "Oriental orange cabbage" -- otherwise known as slaw -- draped with three meaty slices of deep red tuna, just seared at the edges -- a sort of Asian and Deep South fusion dish.
All these dishes are very dainty and polished, which makes one dessert on the menu particularly amusing. No, it's not the small molten chocolate cake with gray sea salt (how do they think these things up?) or the creme brulee, which is actually a delicious flan. It's not the bananas grilled in their skin with chocolate sauce and cookies made with five-spice powder, which the restaurant doesn't quite pull off. But order a hot fudge sundae and you will get large scoops of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, hot fudge and caramel sauces, nuts, whipped cream, a maraschino cherry and colored sprinkles. Try salsa dancing after polishing off one of those.
If you know anything about the Redwood Trust, you know its looks are a big part of the draw. Once a bank building that survived the Great Fire of 1904, it's a mix of historic architecture and funky contemporary appointments. It's a visual knockout. The coffered medallion ceiling, for instance, is stunning in its own right, but it's been painted in an array of bright colors. Draperies and carpeting add warmth to the large, somewhat drafty room, which is dominated by a dance floor and mezzanine.
Before Red Tapas opened, Redwood Trust tried sushi from San Sushi as the food du jour. It sounded like a good idea to me, but it came and went pretty quickly. Tapas as a concept is even more au courant than sushi, but somehow this seems more like a real restaurant -- one that might actually stick around awhile.
Where: Calvert and Redwood streets
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday for dinner only
Prices: $4.95-$13.95, Chef's Tasting Menu, $39
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *