The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
The uptick in Basque accents around the country is on display regionally at La Cuchara, which weighs in with 8,500 square feet and a menu of pintxos (bar snacks), primeros (appetizers) and larger plates, some sprung from a showy grill (platos de asador madera) in the open kitchen. Chef Ben Lefenfeld changes his script, sometimes daily, to highlight the season’s best finds. Experience has taught me to put my trust in the bartender, the bread baker and the cooks trained to let the food speak for itself. Brined veal tongue and charred cabbage tucked into a cumin roll make a memorable three-way. Another fond memory: branzino scented with sage and set on scarlet beet puree. You might be sorry to lose a favorite dish between visits, but also cheered to encounter a fresh idea. Warmed up with guitar music and homey touches, like a collection of spoons on a wall, Baltimore’s biggest restaurant is also one of its best.
2 1/2 stars
La Cuchara: 3600 Clipper Mill Rd., Baltimore. 443-708-3838. lacucharabaltimore.com .
Prices: Mains $22-$36.
Sound check: 83 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following review was originally published Aug. 31, 2016.
La Cuchara review: Big, brash and Basque in Baltimore
First, there’s the enormity of the place. Restaurants clocking in at 8,500 square feet don’t come along every day. When I later learn that La Cuchara, one of the best things to happen to Baltimore in several seasons, was carved from a former London Fog factory, I’m not surprised.
Size makes the initial impression, but style is its companion. If there’s a bigger, warmer environment for dining, I have yet to make its acquaintance. The Basque-themed La Cuchara opens with a glass-fronted counter displaying platters of food, moves on to what might be the city’s biggest bar and concludes with an open kitchen dominated by a grill. To the sides of these spectacles are intimate white-brick dining rooms where guitar music fills the air, Spanish maps confirm the cuisine and a collection of spoons — a mix of wood, cast-iron, ornate and homespun — doubles as wall art.
None of this would matter, of course, without a menu that entices you to do more than browse. But Ben Lefenfeld, 34, the former chef of Baltimore’s Petit Louis Bistro, gives visitors just that: a celebration of the foods of northern Spain inspired by a 2014 trip he took with his wife.
La Cuchara (“spoon” in Spanish) takes its name from their favorite restaurant abroad, La Cuchara de San Telmo, a standard-bearer of modern Basque cooking in San Sebastian.
Lefenfeld’s menu begins with pintxos, the region’s beloved bar snacks that are sometimes held together with a cocktail skewer. (Pintxo, pronounced “PEEN-cho,” derives from the Basque word for “spike.”) Meant to be eaten in the company of other grazers, the bites include the colorful and shocking gildas — toothpicks threaded with anchovy, green olive and racy piquillo pepper — that are a staple of every pintxos bar in San Sebastian. Shaved, brined veal tongue and a layer of charred cabbage fill a half-sandwich served on a swipe of smoky aioli. Each element adds something splendid to the equation, which includes a tender cumin roll baked in house.
Bread, by the way, is one of the highlights of a meal; depending on the day, dinner might commence with smoked potato bread, pumpernickel, sesame seed sourdough or loaves produced with spent grain from the nearby Union Craft Brewing. Whatever the selection, the breads are fine companions for the cheeses (manchego with sweet-and-sour pickled garlic) and meats (the nutty ham from Iberico, should you care to splurge) that round out the opening statements.
The finesse of some of the dishes, primarily the “primeros,” or first courses, play up the chef’s résumé. Before Petit Louis Bistro, Lefenfeld cooked at the Southern lair Charleston, one of the Mid-Atlantic’s crown jewels, and the late Gerard’s Place in Washington, under French maestro Gerard Pangaud. Poached oysters on a pale yellow cream sauce, tinged with Pernod, are as pretty as a still life: separated on their plate by softly crisp sea beans, the bivalves form a ring around a little mound of pale green ribbons of cucumber. Fried oysters, golden and craggy, are aligned in a tidy row with tangy pickles, juicy cherry tomatoes and saffron aioli on a long, white plate. Patatas bravas won’t win any beauty awards, but there’s no denying the full-throttled pleasure in potatoes that have been boiled, seared in duck fat and treated to caramelized onions, roasted garlic, toasted cumin, tomato and smoky paprika. If there’s a bite left, you’re not inhaling life.
The massive grill, custom-designed for the restaurant by the D.C.-based Grillworks, is the source of a handful of dishes that rely on fire for their sizzle. Summer pleasantries have included sage-scented branzino on a brushstroke of beet puree, an entree enhanced with haunting charred eggplant; and a simply noble strip steak fleshed out with chanterelles and a coin of black garlic butter atop the beef. The common denominator is the restraint of the chef, who has the good sense to leave, say, a piece of fish or meat to its own devices. Lefenfeld uses only white oak, which he says imparts a cleaner smoke flavor and doesn’t mask the essence of whatever leaves the grill.
For those who need a bite of sweetness to close a meal, there are slender, sugar-dusted churros with chocolate for dipping and house-made sorbets, including summery melon.
Located in the Meadow Mill complex near the celebrated Woodberry Kitchen, La Cuchara serves drinks as good as its eats, thanks to cocktails including the Mensch (herbaceous Gin Mare mixed with manzanilla sherry and lavender) and wine service courtesy of sommelier Greg Schwab. When one of my guests asked him to describe four Basque reds on the list, the former employee of New York’s esteemed Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group deftly rattled off two-sentence appraisals for each. Also on tap: ciders, just as you’d expect in a genuine pintxo bar abroad, representing both Spain and France.
Co-owned by Lefenfeld’s wife, Amy, and his brother and drinks maestro, Jake, this is a business that cares about the fine points. The bar top, says the chef, is stainless steel trimmed in chestnut, so as to keep “the beer cold and the elbows warm.”
La Cuchara, which can seat up to 260 people factoring in the front patio, is not a quiet restaurant. But then, who hosts a party on mute? The sounds in the expanse are mostly diners having a grand time.
A note of caution: Right now, the chef changes as much as two-thirds of his menu from day to day, allowing his staff to feature the best of the market. The chances of your returning even a week later and finding a favorite are slim. On the other hand, the developments between visits act like catnip. This much I can promise: La Cuchara won’t be boring.