Sunday, November 05, 2006

nasublanca: A Baltimore Original?

The idea of a place with a limited menu offering up cuisine that is Spanish and/or Japanese might be seen either as a new twist on the quarter century old Latin-Asian concept, or perhaps as a total departure from it. The answer seems irrelevant. A better quandary is whether here in Baltimore we're experiencing a first, or whether such a theme has happened elsewhere. Either way, our meal at Nasu Blanca was a treat, albeit an expensive one.

Without checking as to Nasu Blanca's specific address on Fort Avenue, we kept our eyes sharply peeled and managed to glimpse the sign on first drive-by. Otherwise, it looked so dark from outside that we questioned whether Nasu Blanca was open on this Tuesday night. Mrs. Yi got out of the car to check and quickly signaled thumbs up. Shortly thereafter, I joined her in the bar, which to our tastes was attractive to the Nth degree; likewise the dining room above, to which we were escorted. Aware that the renowned Rita St. Clair was responsible for the furnishings and appointments, we knew the space would be plenty inviting.

The only thing about Nasu Blanca that is not pretty specifically Japanese or Spanish is the cocktail menu. Despite concessions to both nations, it seemed to us more San Francisco, New York or Vancouver. I tried a basil julep made with bourbon, thai basil, mint, and galanga syrup. Mrs. Yi chose a Thirsty Buddha, made with Hangar One's Buddha's Hand vodka and candied kumquats. We both loved our drinks. Nasu Blanca also has an attractive wine list. On one side the wines are Spanish. On the other they're Japanese.

The food menu, which changes with the seasons, was divided into five categories: zensai, or Japanese small plates (4); tapas(5); soups and salads(4); entrees(5); and paella(4). We didn't flinch at the prices of the small plates, but thought the entree prices, which ranged from $23 for an all vegetable paella to $39 for a kobe filet with spicy tuna tempura and mustard miso, to be high by Baltimore standards.

Also offered were a couple of specials, one of which was rock shrimp tempura small plate for $11, which Mrs. Yi ordered. It is pictured above between chopsticks next to the beautiful spider mum that adorned our table. For tapas, Mrs. Yi went for grilled lamb with fresh herb salad and port reduction at $11. Served lean and rare as a small filet, I tasted some and found myself unable to imagine a more pleasing lamb flavor. Mrs. Yi also ordered the arugula salad with cabrales, pears, marcona almonds, and cava vinaigrette for $10. It came piled high in the shape of a cone, and she was delighted with it. Had I done a better job with the Samsung SCHa990 cell phone camera, it too would have been pictured above. I eschewed the small plates to go with an entre of black cod served with sweet potatoes and butter ponzu for $25. It is pictured above next to the rock shrimp tempura and adorned with "micro-greens." Black cod is so tender and delicious, and here at Nasu Blanca it was especially that way. While popular for quite a few years at restaurants in larger cities, black cod is a relative late-comer to Baltimore menus. I hope we see more of it in the future.

Since prior to our arrival we'd enjoyed a couple of light tapas over drinks at Tapas Teatro on Charles Street, we were too full for dealing with the small desert menu. We were happy with every aspect of our experience at Nasu Blanca, except for one unpleasant surprise, which presented itself at the end. Early on, when asked, we'd requested a bottle of still water. The price had not been mentioned. At $14, we believe it should have been.