Talara: a great place to spend a Baltimore happy hour (and to stay for dinner!)

By Greg B, Harriet, & Jess A: (***important update***  Check out this link first, before reading the following review.  The quality/quantity/over all appeal of this restaurant has been rather diminished recently, and it’s important to understand this review may NOT be the most up-to-date.)  While I may have been blogging about food, wine and beer for almost two years ago (can you believe it??), there are still a ton of restaurants here in Baltimore that I simply have not made it to yet.  The answer ‘why’ is always a multi-fold reason.  Lack of funding and lack of time (I am a graduate student, after all!) and also the sheer number of places to eat here in Baltimore.  The name ‘the city that eats’ is well said about this town, and it never ceases to amaze me how many new restaurants are opening around here, even despite (or perhaps, in spite of?) of a global financial downturn.  But among these restaurants, both new and old, is one that I have been remiss in reviewing until now. Talara (be sure to have your speakers on for the music!)  For a variety of Latin American cuisine, this might be your best bet for fresh, diverse dishes at a good price for lunch, dinner, or a great happy hour destination with friend!

The inside of the restaurant is open and inviting.  Good lighting surrounds  an interesting art deco/Miami style Cuban art work which plays into their Latin atmosphere.  The sections for seating are many and diverse.  Want to eat by yourself?  Feel free to grab a seat at the bar or the bench surrounding the cooks.  In a small group, just you and a date?  Enjoy several options of two-person sized tables.  Need a larger table?  Grab a high top four seater or a lower more traditional 4 top.  We chose to sit at a high top, giving us ample space to view the crowd and people watch as well as check out the restaurant.  One noticeable and important observation follows what I just outlined: there were many groups of people in the restaurant for different reasons, and Talara has the space and style to cover them all.

We have the opportunity to sample a variety of beverages featured on the Happy Hour list (notably some nice wines by the glass).  I should first mention the more traditional drinks, the mojitos and the caipirinha.  Caiparinha (k-eye-par-een-ya) is a traditional Brazilian drink, made from cachaca (Cah-sha-sa) lime and sugar.  It is a strong drink, but also a very refreshing one and Talara does a good job at not making this beverage overly sweet like many restaurants do.  The mojito list is rather extensive, but we were able to sample three of them.  The Mojito Classico, Mango Mojito, and my favorite of the bunch, the Cucumber Gin Mojito.  While the girls finished off the mango mojito in record time (it was really nicely balanced and tasted exactly like a rip, fresh mango, so who can blame them?) I enjoyed the Cucumber Gin mojito, made with Hendrick’s gin and cucumber.  Not a traditional mojito, but refreshingly delicious none the less.  The Mojito classico was a good, well rounded drink, but in comparison to these other interesting mojitos, it’s even temper got lost (though if you like the rummy mojito flavor, this is again excellent, as they don’t overdo any of the sweet aspects of the drink).

The wines were also interesting. (Harriet) I’d never really associated Talara with wine before, mainly because of their emphasis on those mourish mojitos! But having a study of the wine list, there’s a great selection available by the bottle and by the glass with a noted Latin/Spanish dominance. Four different wines appeared at the table, the most popular of which was the Layer Cake Malbec. Surprising that a heavy red went well in a summery beach-esque setting but it was such a distinctive, smooth yummy wine with plenty of fruit. Not only was it our favorite but this is the most popular by-the-glass wine served at Talara, despite being the most expensive choice on the wine list – that must say something. The other wine of note was the Alamos Torrontes from Mendoza, the cheapest of the Torrontes, which is available during all happy hours at $5 a glass. Torrontes is starting to join the Malbec craze coming out of Argentina. And for good reason, it’s a great summer wine – light and refreshing and a great accompaniment to the seviche. Talara’s happy hour offers a good choice of wines by the glass, no cheap Californian ‘plonk’ that other establishments can be guilty of buying in by the box load. Their happy hour selection is a varied and well thought out pick of wines available on their wine list. Have a look at our gradually updating happy hour pages for full details of Talara’s Happy hours.

Nick Rizzo (one of the managing partners) was kind enough to give us a wide sampling of the available food on the menu.  The slogan ‘raw with a twist’ is a nice way to describe their seviche options.  With over 100 permutations of seafood and sauces and preparations, the seviche menu offers you an almost unending supply of flavors with your fish.  The table shared two seviche orders this night, one was the traditional Tiradito (I say traditional because unlike many people’s perceptions of ceviche from Spain, evidence seems to indicate seviche originated in Peru) which is a Peruvian style sashimi with lemon juice, cilantro oil, red chili, a chipotle paste and sea salt. Yum!  This combination of flavors is both very simple and delicate, yet very flavorful.  We opted to get the crab for our seafood for this dish, as well as for the next dish (per our server’s recommendation), with was the Fire and Ice seviche.  This is a neat dish and one meant to be both artful and interesting.  The fish of your choice is marinaded in a spicy habanero sauce, served in a spoon (you’re going to ‘shoot’ this dish quickly), and topped with a delicious prickly pear granita (think shaved ice).  This dish combines both the spicey heat from the habanero peppers and the cool, refreshing flavor of the iced prickly pear.  It’s delicious.  And if you’re going to come here and are looking for some seviche, I highly recommend making this option part of your dinner or happy hour meal! (Harriet: It really is a taste explosion in the mouth, so much flavor in one spoonful! And as a bonus the dish looks like an array of pink stilettos. Cute!)

So lets review some of the foods that we sampled, many of which are featured on the happy hour food specials.  First up, the Albondigas.  These are simple Peruvian meatballs, a mixture of beef and chorizo served with a delicious tomato sauce.  They’re juicy, they’re tender, they’ve got a ton of flavor to them, and they’re easy to share with a group.  Next up were the fried clams.  While these are not the most exotic of items on the menu, the serving size is well portioned, so that two of us ate plenty of clams from this plate for sharing!

Next, we had to try their salmon dish (asian tartare) which had fantastic presentation.  Slices of raw salmon served over a small bed of rice and seaweed with a sushi style (highlighting some Asian culinary influences in the restaurant) with a tried slice of lotus root on top.  This dish is nice, as the presentation is beautiful but it also is a treat to eat, as the crunch of the lotus root adds a nice contrast to the softer salmon and rice texture.  Again, great for sharing among people.  But if you want to share with a group, you cant really go wrong with getting a ‘chips and salsa’ type dish, though at Talara they add a nice twist to this more trite appetizer.  First, instead of corn chips or mass produced chips, they provide a dish that has an assortment of salsa-to-mouth options.  You can be free to use either the plantain, the malanga or the house made tortilla chips (the other chips are also made in house) and you are provided with three very different and very flavorful options for salsa.  Black bean hummus (delicious, think refried beans but waaaay better than the canned stuff), curried tropical fruit salsa is very refreshing (especially with the malanga chips!) and the Talara house salsa is a light, slightly sweeter vegetable salsa that is both nutritious and tasty.

So by this time in the meal we checked back with our dessert girl, Jess A, who has recently converted from vegetarianism to pescetarianism (and has some great things to say about the upcoming salmon main dish!) and hadn’t eaten too much so far.  Clams were novel for her, so she avoided them, and raw salmon would have been a bigger step for her than she wanted to take.  Nick graciously provided two delicious alternatives: the wild mushroom flatbread and the roasted corn and goat cheese croquettas.  While we let her chow down for a bit, sampling these dishes was too temping.  The presentation on the croquettas was quite nice, but what was even nicer was the texture/flavor of them.  This is definitely a dangerous food, fried corn/cheese but done in a classy way that is all too delicious.  The flatbreads too were delicious.  While there may not be anything new or novel about a flatbread per se, this one had some extreme mushroom flavor working in it’s favor.  Most places mention mushroom, and they use more or less flavorless mushrooms, but this combo of shitake, oyster and portabella mushrooms really brings out the texture and flavor of this delicious fungus.  I will say if you’re not a mushroom lover, you probably wont love this dish.  But if you are (and we certainly are), you’ll love it!

So by this time we were getting a little bit full, but we figured we may as well try one of the mid-plates and leave the Tapas/seviche menus alone for a while.  Those two menus can go a long way to providing you with some nice food during a happy hour, or serve as an appetizer style course before a mid-plate.  From this new section of the menu, we went with another pescetarian-friendly dish, the chili rubbed salmon (on recommendation from our server).  Again, she was spot on!  The salmon has a nice sear to it, was cooked perfectly fork tender, yet still rare on the inside.  In this dish, however, was a sauce that was phenomenal.  I’d order this again just to try this sauce again!  The salmon comes with grilled potatoes and a huancaina (delicious!) sauce, a side of grilled haricot verts and is topped with some pico de gallo.  Delicious.  The portion size is just about 5 oz, just about the right size if you’re sharing tapas and seviche with others before your main dish arrives.

So by now, we were rather full.  But as servers tend to do, they always love to tease people with dessert and this night, we took the bait.  Freshly baked sopapilla (Mexican fried dough, essentially, and my all time favorite Mexican dessert!) with three ice creams, a berry gelato, and two nut (think pecan) ice creams on the side.  A raisin bread pudding, topped with ice cream and chocolate, and a flourless chocolate cake with cinnamon (was a little over cooked, but mixed with some ice cream, this problem was alleviated).

So, what did we learn from our trip to Talara?  I learned that this moderately swanky, very relaxed restaurant exists which serves a wide variety of some of my favorite foods (especially for summertime cuisine).  I learned Talara is also a great place to hang out if you’re looking for a location for some good drink and food specials during happy hour.  But more importantly, they have good drink and food happy hour specials on good, well portioned drinks and food.  And that’s something that, in a time of recession, should not be overlooked.

Special Offer! The Food and Wine Blog is pleased to have the opportunity to offer you, our readers, gift certificates to Talara here in Baltimore.  Follow us on facebook and become a ‘Fan’ of the Food and Wine Blog.  We’ll be giving away $50 gift certificates to Talara to whoever becomes  the 250, 500, 750 and 1000th follower!  To make it a bit easier for me, when we get within 25 followers of each card, start commenting on the most recent post with your number.  I’ll use this information to contact you!

**Necessary Disclosure** In compliance FTC Guidelines at 16 CFR Part 255, I hereby disclose that we received our meal free of charge

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