Asian, Latin American, Spanish, Tapas
$$$$ ($25-$34)
Ranazul photo
Jonathan Newton /The Post

Editorial Review

The sinuous curves of art nouveau frame the plate glass windows of the new Ranazul restaurant in southern Howard County's Maple Lawn development. Open the large glass door with its chrome handle and enter a chic, sleek space awash in dark wood and leather. To the right is a large horseshoe-shaped bar and clusters of tall bar tables. Just to the left is a swank lounge area, with plush leather sofas.

Ahead are two distinct dining areas, one with cloth-covered tables on posh carpet, the other with bare wood tables on wooden floors. The chairs, tall and chocolate leather in one area, shorter and camel leather in the other, invite diners to linger.

Beyond is another lounge area with a plump banquette and carved wooden chairs. Crowning the whole space is the Rennie Mackintosh-influenced La Galeria, an art gallery and private dining room.

Ranazul, a fanciful name of Spanish origins meaning blue frog, is a small-plates restaurant and wine bar that is undoubtedly the most stylish gathering spot in the Maryland suburbs.

Open just five weeks, Ranazul is still in the shakedown phase, mostly for service, but that shouldn't deter diners from experiencing the inventive and flavorful dishes of chef Jaime Ayala, a veteran of Kinkead's in Washington.

Ranazul calls itself a tapas restaurant, but I think that description, which connotes smaller plates of food designed for sharing, is a little off. Most of the dishes that come from Ayala's kitchen are artfully arranged mini-masterpieces. It would be possible to share them, but you might not want to.

It would be hard to give up any of the three jumbo shrimps that compose the shrimp cocktail. Each is curled atop a tiny pot of cocktail sauce, the three pots lined up on a small white platter. The shrimp are impeccable, with a clean briny taste, and the spicy cocktail sauce is a perfect foil.

Or consider the three porcelain Asian soup spoons, also aligned on a white platter, that hold glistening mounds of chopped tuna, christened with black sesame seeds. The tuna is pristine, and a bite fills your mouth with tiny bursts of fiery wasabi.

A trio of perfectly caramelized scallops rests on a bed of braised pearl onions, quickly sauteed haricots verts and mushrooms. The scallops, cooked just until firm, are sweet and clean tasting.

A petit filet of beef, cooked medium-rare as requested, perches on a bed of wilted spinach atop a portobello mushroom, and everything is napped with a rich red-wine beef sauce.

Ranazul could be more accurately described as a wine bar with an extensive selection of small plates. The wine list is impressive, especially for a new restaurant. The list runs more than four thinly spaced pages, with a breadth that is astonishing and prices that make you want to order a bottle. We had an excellent bottle of 2003 Bodegas Muga Reserva tempranillo from Spain for $29, less than what we paid recently for a half-bottle of the same wine at another restaurant. In addition, there are more than two dozen wines available by the glass.

Married owners Linda Doolittle and Carlos Venegas of Howard County spent the past year readying Ranazul. Their aim was to create the kind of place where they would like to hang out with their friends, sampling wines and many types of food, Doolittle said.

Ayala's menu blends Latin American, Spanish and Asian influences. The salads have a decidedly American touch, as do the lunchtime sandwiches. But even here, there are unexpected touches. The house salad, glistening with a champagne vinaigrette is showered with Manchego cheese and hearts of palm. The lunchtime club sandwich pairs shaved turkey breast with bacon, tomato and mozzarella.

The lunch menu includes a sampling of small plates available at dinner; only four dishes on the dinner menu are labeled as entrees.

Still, several of the small plates are more than ample for entrees, including the petit filet and the frito misto (fried shrimp and calamari).

The best dishes involve fish or seafood: the nearly greaseless frito misto, fish croquettes, jumbo shrimp in tequila sauce and the arepa (small corncake) topped with shrimp and crab and a tomato ragout.

The only disappointments were several Mexican dishes: chicken quesadilla, tortilla soup and the sopapillas.

Service is not always expert; servers are too often tentative when explaining the food and frequently slow in removing dishes that can mount quickly on a table. It takes a long time to get bread; you have to ask for it and pay for it. And you can't tell by the price of the dish how large the serving will be.

Potatoes Bravo, fried cubes of potato served with a bracing aioli and a bright tomato salsa, was a serving large enough to share among several people. But the albondigas were just three very good meatballs in a rich tomato sauce. The salmon avocado sushi is a single strip of flawless raw salmon wrapped around a tablespoon of chopped avocado (Beware: The green mound on the side of the plate is wasabi). The lamb chop entree (four chops) could be mistaken for a slightly larger small plate, while the rib-eye looks like a main course at any standard restaurant.

Still, these are minor inconveniences considering just how good the food and wine are.

--Nancy Lewis (Oct. 25, 2007)