Sunday, December 03, 2006

Saturday at Pazo

I'm not a Saturday Person.

Meaning that while I enjoy going out to eat at fabulous restaurants, I don't like eating at those same fabulous restaurants on Friday or Saturday nights. Why? Because everyone and their mother is also eating out that night. Those are the nights restaurants rake in most of their money, the house is packed, the wait staff is harried, the bus people have a harder time keeping up and the kitchen just won't give your food the attention it deserves because, like everyone else, they're just trying to stay out of the weeds.

But I can't control birthdays and I don't like to be the one poo-poo-ing on the parade, so I'm happy to go along with whatever. It was Vanessa's 30th and Pazo was the place. Seating time: 8:30pm.

Just pulling up to the place and I could tell it was packed. The valet line was a bit long and the attendants look harried. A quick chat with my attendant revealed 130 for the 8:30p seating and possibly another 80 at 10p - a busy night indeed.

I had been to Pazo once before with Sam H. on the night the OnoGrill was born. It was that blustery spring night in 2005 that we sat down and hammered out the ideas which would propel us to 4 stars from the Baltimore Sun. Back then, Pazo was spanking new and I was interested to see how the restaurant had matured over the past year and a half.

The brainchild of Baltimore's media chef darling, Cindy Wolf - who also owns Charleston and Petit Louis, Pazo is supposed to be a Spanish-style tapas restaurant that doubles as a hip spot where the trendy want to see and be seen. After years in Nell's Basement, Michael Alig parties at Tunnel and years in the movie business, a place to see and be seen is the last place I usually want to be.

The interior is dramatic. High ceilings, timber structural supports, Spanish-esque chandeliers (think: Mask of Zorro) fill a cavernous converted factory space in the grey area between Fells Point and Harbor East. It's a pleasant looking space whose lack of any sort of acoustic dampeners make for a very noisy place - and that's without the loud euro techno music.

I want to like Pazo, I really do, but it's hard. Maybe that's just their thing or maybe it's because we were there on Saturday night, but I found the food to be bland and relatively uninspired. For our large party of 20 plus older-than-twentysomethings we had been given the "head table" - a dark wood table that dominated the lower level, featuring bar height chairs. I have to admit, I absolutely HATE bar height chairs. My feet dangle and there's no place to rest them (like the floor on normal chairs), so even while the upholstered seats are comfy on the tushy, it's hell on the legs and a complete and utter distraction from the main event: the food.

We had what must have been a fifteen course meal, prix fixe. Like I said, the food was okay, but for the price I expected better. I expected something dazzling. I expected to hunger for the dishes, like I do at Las Vegas' Firefly on Paradise.

Out of all the dishes, which just kinda blended together, the most memorable were the beef empandas, the beef course and the spaghetti squash. The empanadas were good, tasty and cooked just right. Lightly spicy, slightly sweet with a delicate crust. The beef course was a nice fatty flank steak with sliced almonds. That was tasty. So tasty that I could help but to devour as much of it as was possible - of course, it could also be that the rest of the meal was unfulfilling and I just was trying to build some sense of satiation. Another highlight for me was the spaghetti squash. Thin julienne slices of squash sauteed with lardon style bacon. That was tasty.

The honorable mention goes to the pistachio topped white fish. I think it would have been a smashing dish had it not been overcooked.

The rest of the meal was largely unmemorable but Capitol Swell lists pretty much the entire meal in his blog entry. And while I don't necessarily disagree with him, he is incorrect about the salad - it's romaine, not iceberg.

As I said earlier, chef/owner Cindy Wolf is Baltimore's media darling. She's reputed as "the best" in Baltimore. Which makes me wonder why I have such a hard time thinking that her restaurants (Charleston, Petit Louis, Pazo) are as good as the reputation? Most of the meal was unmemorable because it's just bland. Perhaps the great unwashed masses of Baltimore are into bland food, or the clientele is too worried about being seen in the hip spot so the food doesn't have to measure up, but it's just disappointing.

Some missteps: while our server was very good, top-notch even, there were a couple missteps by those supporting him. Most irritably was midway through the meal. I was drinking a very good Allende Rioja 2003 in one of those stemless Riedel glasses when a blonde waitress brought another course to the table. Now, maybe I expect too much, but I do expect that it is the waitress' problem to move other dishes to make room for the next course - especially if I'm engaged in conversation with my dining companion. But to take my wine glass, move it out of place and drop the dish where the glass was is just inexcusable. It's poor service. It's a lack of understanding on what service is all about. If Cindy Wolf is the best chef in Baltimore then this is just shit.

The next misstep occured during dessert as a bowl filled with two scoops of mousse and six raspberries were brought to the table. One of the raspberries had a big splotch of green mold on it. That's bad enough and had the raspberry been placed in such a way that obscured the mold, i might have thought that maybe the kitchen didn't see it. But there it was, the mold was right side up and in obvious sight - it might as well have had a neon sign. Either the kitchen was so slammed they weren't taking their time to plate and check the plates carefully, or they were just incompetent. Neither situation is desirable.

Oh well, enough slugging on Pazo. I'm disappointed. I was hoping for something tasty, adventurous and authentic, but what we got was mild, bland and uninspired - I mean really, a plateful of mini cannolis? Is that considered imaginative and bold in this town?

Maybe that's why I usually find myself in D.C.