By Christine Fillat | Photography by Janet Kahoe and John Mount
The quest for great food takes us to unexpected places, down less traveled roads, across bridges, over quick rivers. Nestled between the Light Rail and the Jones Falls in the Baltimore Meadow Mill building that once housed a London Fog factory, is an homage to the food of the Basque region. Chef Ben Lefenfeld, co-owner with his wife, Amy, and his brother, Jacob, helms this simply elegant wood fire–scented establishment, La Cuchara. The Spoon.
“The Basque region produces an amazing bounty of seafood and vegetables and, being right on the coastline, you have the mountains that really come right up against [the shore],” says Lefenfeld. “There’s lots of mushrooms and lots of grazing areas for sheep and goats. The Bay of Biscay—you talk about some of the best seafood found in the world ... Galician mussels, octopus, the seafood in general is just unreal. That’s the basis of it. It’s just the bounty of the ingredients found in the area.”
La Cuchara is a theater for the senses, and food is performance art. There is an excitement in the combination of cheeses, vinegars, hams, sausages, seafood and seasonal vegetables, all with the essence of the open fire upon which much of the food is cooked.
“[The fire] really makes for kind of a sensual ingredient to a lot of the dishes that are produced,” states Lefenfeld. “Here at the restaurant we can’t necessarily cook every single dish directly over the wood grill, but, what we do is, throughout the day we might smoke onions or garlic and incorporate that into the sauce or grill vegetables that end up becoming a picada, which really does lend itself to … capturing some of the wood grill that moves throughout the entire meal.”
While encountering an unfamiliar cuisine may be a bit daunting, the tasting menu takes all of the guesswork out of decision-making. The chef chooses from the different sections of the menu to custom create a meal. My dining companion and I opted to go that route. At $59 a person, this is a great way to experience what La Cuchara does best. And boy, did we feel that we were being taken care of in a big way, beginning with sardines with a lemon aioli and Provençale sauce, where the sardines are giant and the sauce is spicy. A little bit of heaven on a plate is the Jamón Croquette, where bits of serrano ham, manchego cheese and a bechamel sauce are deep fried into a ball of creamy, salty bliss. So blissful that we ordered an additional serving, just to go to that place once again.
The next plates arrived in a flurry with garlicy potatoes on a spicy Provençale sauce, and an arugula salad with pepitas, artisanal blue cheese and honey vinaigrette. More arugula accompanies the crispy oysters in what may be the only mysterious item on the menu. The oysters are so delicate that a mere essence of oyster remains in the crispy coating.
For mushroom lovers like myself, the chanterelle salad delights with spinach, a lacing of lemon and a sprinkling of hazelnuts.
We were served swordfish for the main dish. Deftly cooked with charred broccoli, a fine dice of sweet potato and a fennel picada, this dish is the essence of Basque cooking.
To accompany our meal, we ordered a flight of Tempranillo, with three distinctly different half-glasses of this Spanish wine. The bar menu includes a collection of cocktails, wines and beers, with Spanish cider on tap.
The kitchen bakes its own bread and desserts. A chocolate torte becomes seasonal with a bit of applesauce. Thinly sliced apples over a creamy custard make up the apple torte, with a flaky crust. A pot of French-press coffee rounds out a first-rate meal. Even though we ate our way through a good bit of food, we never felt overwhelmed by it. We had the perfect amount of everything.
At La Cuchara, you feel you are in capable hands. The front of the house is pleasant. The wait staff is capable. The food is masterful. The dinner crowd is sophisticated.
When asked who inspires him, Chef Lefenfeld looked right to his staff. “My culinary heroes are just the line cooks that help us recreate and duplicate some of the things day after day that make this place special.”
And special is what you will experience at La Cuchara.
3600 Clipper Mill Road
Baltimore, MD 21211
*A note to diners: La Cuchara is a bit tricky to locate, so please call the
restaurant ahead of time to acquire directions.
Hours of Operation
Lunch: Monday - Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Monday - Saturday 4 p.m. to close
Sunday Brunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sunday Dinner: 11 a.m. to close
Christine Fillat lives on the Magothy River and is an aficionado of Chesapeake Bay cooking and living.
Annapolis Home Magazine
Vol. 7, No. 6 2016