The best ambassadors for Venezuela in the United States right now are Irena Stein and Enrique Limardo. They’re the owner and chef, respectively, of Alma Cocina Latina in Southeast Baltimore, an alluring young restaurant that shines a light on a style of cooking that doesn’t get much play in this country. If your only encounter with the cuisine has been arepas, Venezuela’s answer to (stuffed) corn bread, prepare to have your horizons broadened. And if you’ve never had the pleasure of ravioli de chucho, expect to be dazzled.
Back in Caracas, where the principals are from, the dish is known as pastel de chucho and looks like lasagna, with fish between its layers. Limardo takes the idea and runs with it. He adds plantains to the dough to make ravioli, which he stuffs with mashed skate and serves on brushstrokes of squid ink with spoonfuls of melted telita cheese, similar to mozzarella. Black and white, they create the most harmonic version of ebony and ivory since Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. To finish the dish, the chef dehydrates salad components — spinach, cilantro, onions — and dusts the ravioli with the resulting green powder.
You may think you know crudo. Alma Cocina Latina teaches you otherwise. The fish, in this case sea bass glossed with cilantro oil, isn’t immediately visible. Limardo carpets almost half the rectangular dish with microgreens, half with crisp silverfish before framing the appetizer in dark green borders of emulsified avocado and jalapeño. Not until your fork enters the picture do you see the dewy sea bass. The combination of subtle fish, fresh herbs, crisp garnish and creamy heat in every bite is irresistible. Which is precisely the sensation the chef wants you to experience.
“Venezuelan food is an explosion on the palate,” says Limardo, 41, who has cooked for more than half his life. The best of it is “sweet, sour, savory and spicy . . . in every bite.” To taste his food is to see how it borrows from elsewhere in the world — Italy, Spain, West Africa — and to learn how Limardo spent his time since he sold his two restaurants in Caracas a decade ago. Subsequently, as a private chef, he got to cook all over the world: Dubai, Hong Kong, Paris.
The chucho and the crudo prompt a question: Is every dish on the menu as magical? My crush on the restaurant turns into deeper affection when the first of several arepas appear. Sitting at the wood counter of the front kitchen lets you see the process by which the Venezuelan staple — shaped from white corn flour, water, salt and canola oil — goes from a little ball of dough to a puffy hot pocket after a spell on a massive griddle and in a hot oven. The fillings run from traditional to terrific. Juicy shredded beef with caramelized plantains and inky black beans, or La Nacional, is very good. But the Korean-inspired arepa finds your taste buds dancing as they connect with smoked pork loin, green onion kimchi and wild sesame seeds. Neatniks, rejoice. Whatever your selection, it’s presented in a brown paper sleeve.
Arepas are meant to be eaten soon after they’re made. Don’t bother wrapping up leftovers. Stein mentally winces when she sees customers leaving with unfinished arepas, knowing that the snacks get tough in transport and reheating.
The same cannot be said of the arroz con pollo y camarón, a rice dish swirled with sofrito and decked out with chicken thighs that have been stuffed with ground shrimp and deep-fried. Take it from someone who rewarmed the entree at home. The chicken remains succulent, and the rice — infused with the flavors of red bell peppers, onion and tomatoes and dabbed with caper aioli — stays sensational. The lush texture of the dish is explained by Carnaroli rice, the best for making risotto.
Stein is a known commodity in Baltimore, where she has two other eating establishments at the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, Alkimia and Cafe Azafran. Whenever she sold Venezuelan food at the latter, she says, “People went crazy.” Initially, her third restaurant was expected to serve just arepas. But the space she liked best was too large for the idea. Dreaming bigger, Stein found her chef after his plans to join a catering company in Washington fell through three years ago. Alma made its debut in Canton in April 2015.
The food here is so compelling, I couldn’t wait to return after my initial trip and came back the next night. The second round, beginning with a riff on a Hemingway daiquiri and embracing bison tongue and a fantasy in chocolate, proved as mouthwatering as the first. The tongue, cooked with cocoa powder and glossed with tamarind sauce, supports the chef’s view of his country. Every tender bite is powerfully good. The dessert, starring Venezuelan chocolate, is a spectacle of ganache, cocoa-coconut crumble, cocoa syrup and red dots (bell pepper jam). Watch for flying spoons.
The only thing stopping me from booking a table for the next night was a dark restaurant. Alma Cocina Latino isn’t open on Sundays.
There’s one dish whose charms I can resist. The Cubano is ordinary in comparison to its bewitching peers on the menu. The upside to the pressed meat-and-cheese sandwich is a small stack of some of the best yucca fries I’ve ever had. They’re lightly crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle and seasoned with merken, a spice blend from Chile made from ground smoked chilies. Bet you can’t stop at one piece.
Frankly, I’d visit Alma if the dining room were a box and the staff were robots. But they’re not. The interior, an inviting jungle of plants in a setting made playful with a hammock separating bar from tables, comes courtesy of Stein’s husband, Mark Demshak, an architect. Yes, the room can get loud, but food this exciting brings out the whoops in some of us. Every server I’ve met is a stand-in for Stein, fussing over patrons and explaining the food as if they grew up with it. Indeed, no detail appears to have been overlooked. Desserts show the same thought as what preceded them (and if you like meringue, you’re going to fall hard for the tres leches). Even the website is impressive.
Alma is Spanish for “soul.” It’s a fitting name for a fantastic restaurant that gets to the very essence of hospitality.
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2400 Boston St., Baltimore
Open: Dinner Monday through Saturday; brunch Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers $9 to $21, main courses $26 to $90.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.