If you never got a chance to eat at chef David Sherman's now-shuttered but much loved Locust Point eatery Nasu Blanca, which featured a unique fusion of Japanese and Spanish flavors, make a trip to Café Cito, his new and less formal spot in Hampden. Located just off The Avenue, this charming spot—whose name actually means "small cafe" in Spanish—has much bigger aspirations.
In the morning, you can get a breakfast "sammy" with a fried egg and cheddar cheese. For lunch, soups and salads are featured—the butternut squash purée topped with sage crème fraîche; and the warm mushroom salad with arugula, roasted mushrooms and red peppers, goat cheese, and pine nuts were recent stars on the seasonal menu. But come dinnertime, the place transforms into one of those unassuming restaurants serving seriously fine food in unpretentious surroundings that you might stumble upon down a Barcelona alley.
Sherman, who has trained under Spanish chefs like Daniel Oliveira at the Thirsty Bear in San Francisco and cooked at local eateries like Tapas Teatro, obviously has a distinct culinary point of view, which he executes with passion and precision. I could taste it from our meal's opener—a simple appetizer of piquillo peppers. The small, slightly sweet red peppers were stuffed with goat cheese and presented on a generous base of pesto before being sprinkled with toasted almonds. All elements of this dish worked together in perfect harmony, and we even sopped up the remaining pesto with Cunningham's artisanal bread, which was crunchy on the outside, and chewy on the inside.
We were less impressed, however, with the spinach and apple salad, which suffered from too many sweet elements. The beet vinaigrette, apple slivers, and cranberries could have been toned down with more goat cheese and perhaps something more acidic and salty. Some of the baby spinach greens also appeared old and wilted.
While both salad and stuffed peppers were listed under "small" plates, we split several "medium" plates for our main courses. These included a pan-seared rib-eye, butifarra, and rock shrimp tempura. Even though we ordered the steak medium, it turned out slightly dry and chewy. It was somewhat redeemed, however, by the added flavors of roasted garlic purée, Gorgonzola picante, and beef stock reduction. But the accompanying sliced fingerling potatoes were roasted to perfection and dusted with a smoky pimentón, accentuating their earthiness.
David Sherman has a distinct culinary point of view which he executes with passion and precision.
Butifarra, which refers to a family of sausages that are a mainstay of Catalan cooking, proved to be much better. In fact, the smoked-duck sausage was a refreshing change from pork, pairing perfectly with the garlicky white beans, which, though nicely stewed, still managed to maintain their integrity and not become mushy. For an extra dollar, we ordered this dish with a fried egg on top, but what was promised as a runny yolk was ever so slightly overcooked. Still, the parsley oil around the edge of the plate provided a nice, flavorful detail. We also unanimously loved the rock shrimp tempura (a nod to the chef's former restaurant), with its light coating and slightly spicy sauce, and the Artic char with lentils looked promising, too.
Of course, we couldn't eat at a Spanish-inspired place without sampling the paella, of which there were two kinds. We passed on the more traditional seafood variety in favor of the vegetable paella that featured mushrooms, roasted red peppers, currants, and toasted pumpkin seeds. Saffron and stock had obviously been employed to marvelous effect, making the incredibly rich and flavorful short-grain Spanish rice, which absorbs three times its volume in liquid, the star of this plate.
The best thing about sharing small plates among three people is that there is usually room for dessert. On this occasion, Cito had two "sweets" on the menu so we tried both. The first was a scoop of malty peanut-butter ice cream from the nearby Charmery. The ice cream was salty-sweet and nutty, and a homemade chocolate-covered shortbread cookie supplemented the creamy scoop. We also indulged in the apple crostada, a light pastry folded up over a moist apple filling. Talk about sending clean plates back to the kitchen.
Café Cito continues Baltimore's trend toward "micro" restaurants, where both the space and menu are small. The focus on a few dishes done well also fits in with the philosophy of keeping things local and seasonal. Small plates and a meager $5 table fee for BYOB helps keep the bill down, but the big flavors and excellent service will keep customers coming back. A town as laid-back as Baltimore deserves this kind of fine, unpretentious dining.