One of the most enjoyable aspects of this Spring's last few installments of the 2010-2011 Baltimore Speakers Series at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was the culinary preliminary. The Meyerhoff is located in an area where convenient dining options are few and far between, so getting a bite, getting to the Meyerhoff parking deck, and getting in line for the opening of the doors was always a bit of a problem in the past. In late February, however -- on the very day of a Speakers Series event, in fact -- Mari Luna "Cocina Mexicana" Bistro opened on the site of an abandoned eatery across from the Meyerhoff. We'd seen the "coming soon" signs and were glad that the Latin-themed mini-chain -- which also includes the original Mexican Grill in Pikesville and a Latin Grill in Old Town Pikesville, both of which we've visited and enjoyed (not to mention brought family members and visitors to) -- was filling a need. We did not, however, expect to literally be the FIRST CUSTOMERS TO BUY FOOD at the newly-opened Bistro. (Someone did get there ahead of us, but they stuck to drinks.) Word about the new place spread quickly, and, by the time we went to the Meyerhoff earlier this week to see Howard Dean and Karl Rove spar in the final Speaker Series program, Nicky had to call ahead just to get us "squeezed in" at a high-seat cocktail table. Between the Speakers Series, the concerts and related events at the Meyerhoff, and the presence of the University of Baltimore right next door, "founding chef" Jaime Luna appears to have a "license to print pesos" for the foreseeable future, the economy and stratospheric local rents permitting.
The original Mari Luna was and is the kind of "neighborhood Mexican joint" that the local Mexican people frequent, while the Latin Grill pilfers from the cuisines of South America and Panama as well as Mexico. The Bistro hovers somewhere in between. It has a more "traditionally Mexican" menu than the Latin Grill, but nothing among the tacos, enchiladas, and burritos appears to be "standardized." This week, for example, I ordered the three-taco platter. Out came a tray divided into three compartments, with each holding the fixings for one taco (chunked beef, chicken, and pork with pineapple). In place of the "stand & stuff" variety of taco shell, I got a trio of soft tortillas. This made it a little difficult to eat the blamed things without fixings slipping out the ends (though, admittedly, this is a standard problem for even the most conventional of tacos). The tacos were accompanied by a little guacamole salad, rice, and beans, all quite artfully presented. Other taco varieties on the menu include duck, lamb, and cow tongue... again, not exactly "standards" from the Taco Bell drive-thru board.
On opening night, Nicky and I wanted something a little more substantial and got what Nicky likes to call "big food." Carne asada for me, a pork leg/shoulder for Nicky. The chefs must really have been trying to impress their first "eating" customers, for they provided a "most grandiloquent effulgence of comestibles." See for yourself:
And we were naive enough to have gotten an appetizer before this! Nicky left some of the pork dish uneaten in self-defense so we could have some coffee and dessert (hazelnut-filled chocolate cupcake; creme brulee trio with a caramel glaze). On our second visit in March, we consciously dialed it down, with Nicky getting a variety of enchiladas and me getting a burrito. I've heard of stuffed burritos, but the miniature Yule log that was served to me was stuffed with enough stuff for a pair of meals. This past week, we essayed an offering from the Bistro's guacamole bar -- in this case, a clay pot filled with guacamole mixed with bacon bits and cheese -- before I proceeded to the tacos and Nicky to the Carnitas Urupuan (a new import from the original Mari Luna's menu). That seemed to be a reasonable amount of food for the price (about $75 for the both of us, again including coffee and dessert).
One criticism that may fairly be made of the new Mari Luna is that the kitchen seems to be pulling its punches when it comes to spices. The original ML has your more typically spicy Mexican fare, but the Bistro seems to be holding back a little for the preponderance of gringos in the concert- and speech-going audience. Nicky noticed this more than I did. I put my less sensitive palate down to years of growing up in Delaware at a time when Chi-Chi's and Taco Bell routinely ranked on the lists of "best local Mexican restaurants" and the best Mexican place in the area (the now-defunct El Sombrero in Newark, near the University of Delaware campus) was as well known for Indian food as for Mexican food.
We do not plan to renew our subscription to the Speakers Series for 2011-2012, so our next visit to Mari Luna Bistro may well be for the newly-established Sunday Brunch Special ($25.00 per person). In the Summer, the restaurant will also feature an outdoor dining patio. Future visitors to Owings Mills, beware; you are likely to get the "Mari Luna Bistro Experience" the next time you come see us, no matter what form it may take!