By Greg B. It’s so often that new restaurants pop up in the same old places. Locations in Little Italy, in buildings in Fells point, row houses in Federal Hill, or anywhere along the waterfront. But how often does a restaurant set out to make it in a rough neighborhood, using only their skill in the kitchen, the freshest, best ingredients, and healthy approach to cooking to guide them to success? When restaurants like these appear, it’s best to keep an eye on them, as they’ll no doubt shine. And what better way to keep an eye, than to dine in, and dine frequently! In this case, we’re talking about Calle’s Cucina, a new restaurant in the southern end of Charles Village.
Ambiance: Casual trending towards intimate
Food: Italian with a local-twist
Wine List: BYOB, no liquor license so you have to bring your own. (liquor store across the street)
Pricing: $$ (with dessert)
Corkage: No corkage fee – BYOB establishment.
Attire: No specific dress code.
Overall: Very good, recommended. BYOB and the best cooked fish I’ve tasted.
2431-2433 St. Paul St
Also Available: Group take-out and lunch
Jessica and I went out to celebrate a successful week of work and progress towards completion of her Ph.D. Some good food, a nice sunset and some wine during some early spring weather? Perfect! We arrived at Calle’s Cucina for an early dinner, around 6:30pm and were promptly greeted by the owner and chef, Carl Vahl. The inside of the restaurant is great, there’s plenty of natural light from the street, but tall ceilings, nice lighting and a very open structure allow a pleasant and comfortable dining experience. Upon first walking into the restaurant, diners are greeted with a view of busy chefs and a clear shot straight into the kitchen, before heading up a small flight of stairs to the right and into the elevated dining room. The dining room, by the way, is very spacious, and has at least 18 tables with plenty of space between them. We were seated by a west-facing window, which allowed us to watch the light as the sunset during our meal (not a straight shot of the sun setting, but still, a nice touch).
The menu is small, but intentionally so, as ingredients come and go as they are fresh, and menu items sell out periodically, in an effort to limit kitchen waste and again, keep the freshest foods available for the diners. Before walking into the restaurant, I already knew what I was going to order: Scallops. Specifically U10 scallops from Massachusetts. Oh, how I love scallops, their juicy firm scalloped flesh has the brine of a mussel, the meat of a swordfish, and the texture of nothing else but a scallop. This is a food I could probably eat in an endless fashion, but I digress. I had seen the menu before walking in and knew exactly the dinner I wanted. And for appetizers? The Smoked Seafood Plate was an obvious choice. Not only are smoked fish and shellfish great, but when dining with Jessica, I knew we both enjoy them (especially after trying some of the smoked fish items at Lot 12 a few months back!). The menu boasts a good array of vegan, vegetarian and pescetarian friendly option, which is great for a restaurant with a smaller menu. Jessica opted for the vegan Eggplant casserole as an appetizer and the delicious sounding Pesci della Roccia Arancione (A delicious rockfish dish).
It’s important to note, at this time, that Calle’s Cucina is a BYO restaurant. We had brought a Gewurztraminer wine from the US Pacific Northwest winery, and had a Pinot Noir as our backup. But, Calle’s Cucina is located directly across from a liquor store ( Charles Village Discount Liquors), who will offer a 10% discount for diners of Calle’s Cucina. So should you not bring your own wine, never fear, you can buy some from a store in very close proximity!
First to come out was a plate of breads, which I did not photograph as well as I’d have liked, mostly due to being unable to keep my hands off the bread. I was ravenously hungry, having only eat some pineapple for breakfast, and a very early lunch of a Venison and rice mixture I had invented the night before. The cornbread was very tasty, the garlic bread exceptional, and the standard bread also very good. And while all breads were very tasty on their own, adding a small dollop of the creme fraiche to the garlic bread was a simple but very pleasurable experience.
Our appetizers came out, and upon first glance I noted that if they tasted half as good as they looked, we were in for a treat. Jessica’s vegan eggplant casserole arrived in a bowl, in a casserole-for-one type manner which I liked, aesthetically. The Smoked Seafood Plate arrived served on a board of slate, and looking very well put together. While I let Jessica enjoy her dish (and also waited for it to cool a bit, she liked her food warmer than I do in general), I happily sampled the smoked seafood before me. First, of course, I enjoyed a succulent bay scallop which had such an enjoyable combo of sweet scallopness and light smoke, as well as a texture that practically melted in the mouth. The Smoked mussels combined the briny nature of the ocean and delicious aspect of smoked foods and were also very tender. Finally, I dug into the beautiful smoked salmon rose, which was salty, smokey and hearty, everything you’d want to to be. You can’t go wrong with this seafood plate! Jessica’s vegan eggplant casserole too was delicious, the meatiness of the eggplant and the depth of flavor in the sauce combined to provide a robust and heart appetizer. Make this portion size a bit larger, or add some side option, and it could easily be a future entree.
After the appetizers were over, we enjoyed a mixed green salad made of fresh ingredients, with a pleasantly acidic vinaigrette dressing on top. With our wine glasses replenished of the very delicious gewurtz (who doesn’t love a bit of minerality and tart apple with seafood?) we were then greeted with our entrees. Jessica’s Rockfish fillets were accompanied by slices of orange and orange peel, as well as a citrus/butter sauce. On the side, a portion of rice with beans, and steamed carrots and broccoli brought vegetable and visual appeal to the plate. My scallops were also sharing the plate with the rice and beans portion, and carrots with broccoli, as well as tiny leaves of basil and a citrus-butter sauce. The scallops were perfectly cooked, lightly seared on each side, perfectly cooked through to be tender, yet firm, textured, yet not chewy. You couldn’t ask for more than that! Jessica’s rockfish, however, stole the show. I haven’t had a fish that was cooked as well as the fish that Chef Carl prepared, but I can assure you that, if he keeps producing fish cooked this well, he’s going to be taking a lot of seafood/fish orders for his restaurant in the future. It literally was like rockfish butter. The tender succulent fish melted in the mouth, leaving the hearty and flavorful rockfish flavor to permeate your experience of each forkful. Amazingly delicious. Chef Carl Vahl obviously knows his seafood! Next time, I’ll sample the meat dishes (although it’ll be hard, admittedly, to avoid the opportunity for such well cooked fish options).
With our bellies nearing the full level, we were then presented with the dessert menu. Now, knowing that my girlfriend enjoys both bread pudding and carrot cake, I let her order the carrot cake and myself order the bread pudding… but I was immediately questioning myself, so I also ordered a double espresso and a canoli. The filling is made in house, after all! The desserts arrived promptly, and were delicious. I’ll admit the carrot cake was a bit dry, but this was made up for by how amazing the bread pudding was. Hot, chocolatey bread pudding was fantastic enough, but it was topped with a house made mint gelato that blew every other gelato I’ve tried out of the water – even gelatos I’ve eaten in Rome or Florence. And a hot chocolate bread pudding with that good of a mint gelato on top of it is an amazing thing, my friends. The canoli, too, was very good. And at $3 a pop, is almost worth the minimal cost in currency to sample something so good. The filling had this hint of lemon peel that went extraordinary well with the creme and canoli shell. Plus, with a side of espresso, you really need to have a canoli on hand. If it’s not a rule, it should be.
And so we paid our tab and made our way home. Full, pleased, and happy that there’s a new restaurant in town that cares so much about letting fresh food speak for itself, flavorwire. Honestly, this restaurant is a pretty great deal price wise. With entrees in the lower $20 for great seafood, meat dishes in the $15-20 range and pasta dishes in this range too, you’re getting top quality food for average prices. This should definitely be on your list of new Baltimore restaurants to check out this spring!
**Necessary Disclosure** In compliance FTC Guidelines at 16 CFR Part 255, I hereby disclose that I received part of this meal free of charge