A visit on a Thursday evening – July 24th, 2014 – to Mari Luna Latin Grille proved interesting and offered some surprises.
One thing that brought up good memories of past meals at Mari Luna Latin Grille were the memorable “Popovers” that we got when we sat down! With a bit of mango butter, these are just fantastic! (if you’re not familiar with popovers, as big as they look, they’re largely empty inside so that they don’t fill you up as much as you might think judging from their size! )
The back dining room is an equally attractive space; this was the first time of a handful of visits to Mari Luna when the back room was closed and “dark”.
Soon after we arrived, JT asked about Salvatore, a long time Maitre’d – we learned that he had left Mari Luna several weeks early. JT asked about a favorite waiter and learned that three long time waiters had left as well. There wasn’t any clear answer as to why these stalwarts of Mari Luna for many years had moved on. (BUT… Later Marty did some detective work and found out that all four were now working for a newly opened upscale, Kosher steak house – Serengeti – located at 2835 Smith Avenue in Pikesville!)
Looking over the menu, we were a bit taken aback with how menu prices seemed to have risen – we saw that the menu offered a 3 course dinner for $30. We asked our waiter about it and learned that we could select virtually any three items on the menu; he explained though that there were a small number of main entrees which were available for an additional surcharge of $6 (i.e., $36 instead of $30). FYI – None of the information about the 3 course dinner for $30 appears on Mari Luna’s web site yet curiously is part of the formal printed menu that we received when we were seated. Looking at the prices on the menu, we saw where the $30 deal could easily turn out to be a bargain
Three of us decided to opt for the $30 prix fix dinner. JT decided to start with a Cobb Salad ($10) with Paella Valencia ($28 – this paella with seafood was one of the special ones offered as part of the $36 prix fix dinner). Marty opted to starty with Gambas al Ajillo ($13 – Shrimp with garlic) and Matamoros ($28 – Filet Mignon with onion rings, mushrooms and a tequila sauce. John ordered Mussels Gauchos ($13 – Steamed mussels with chorizo, tomato and herbs) to start with and chose Churrasco ($31 – Rib eye steak, fried egg, onion rings and chimichurri) for his entree.
Our friend Bill decided not to do the prix fix dinner; he decided to skip the appetizer and ordered Lamb Shanks ($28) for his entree.
The appetizers that our waiter, Jefferson, placed in front of us were darn impressive!
Marty gave a “Thumbs Up!” to his garlic shrimp (though the portion of just three shrimp looked much smaller compared to the other appetizers)
JT’s Cobb salad was large (served on a full sized dinner plate!) and quite impressive. With a mix of fresh greens, tomato, cucumber, artichoke heart, avocado, jicama, heart of palm, beets, boiled egg and bits of cheese and served with lime vinaigrette on the side, it could have minimally been a satisfying luncheon entree on its own. JT generously shared a sample of his salad with the rest of our table. Definitely a “Thumbs Up!” salad!
John’s mussels (a generous portion of 10 mussels and chorizo sausage with garlic bread) were awesomely good and quickly got John’s unqualified “Thumbs Up!”. The broth that they were cooked in was so delicious that he started using one of the large mussel shells to spoon it up.
Marty’s filet arrived covered in fried onions with garlic mashed potatoes (with a stick of toasted plantain in them!) and he was quite pleased with it. The generous serving proved too much for Marty and he ended up taking half of his entree home with him.
John’s Churrasco steak would have looked similar to Marty’s filet except that it was bigger, thinner piece of meat AND topped by an “over easy” fried egg and served up with small containers of pan juices and chimichurri sauce (FYI – Churrasco with chimichurri is popular in Argentina and involves a thinner cut of skirt steak which is grilled) The traditional chimichurri condiment is made from finely-chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano and red wine vinegar (At Mari Luna, it included some finely chopped tomato and resembled a variation of salsa). The amount of food with his entree proved daunting and John took half of it home with him!
Bill was very happy with his decision to go with the Lamb Shank!. A big joint with a hearty amount of lamb, it nicely filled a large dish.
Bill not only gave his Lamb Shank a “Thumbs Up!” but asked our waiter to box up the bone so that he could feel comfortable at home picking up the bone and gnawing every last piece of every last piece of that delicious meat off of the bone. (Why there was even talk of him using the bone joint to serve as the base of a soup! <Wink>)
JT’s paella was a different story. It looked huge and appetizing BUT… it was supposed to include lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, chicken and chorizo in addition to the rice – instead we could only see colorful veggies on it! JT is both remarkably optimistic and patient and he hoped that the seafood was somewhere buried in his big plate of food. Poor JT! He finally reached the conclusion that there was NO seafood in his dish! (and that even after he acknowledged and agreed to paying extra for the version of paella with seafood! Our waiter was called over and confirmed that the kitchen and the waiter had made a mistake and served JT the vegetarian version of paella. JT, ever the gentleman, decided to make due with what he had got but pragmatically asked that the extra charge for the seafood be removed from the bill and that he only be charged for the standard $30 prix fix. (To the rest of us, it seemed odd and inexplicable that both the kitchen and the waiter had screwed up JT’s entree so badly particularly when his choice of entree entailed the extra charge that he discussed with the waiter at the time that he ordered it!) JT must have enjoyed his paella despite the mix up because he ended up taking 2/3 of it home with him!
Somewhat amazingly, all four of us were ready for dessert despite the appetizers and entrees that we had tackled. Both Bill and JT decided to just have some ice cream which was supposed to come with some berries. Marty decided to have some flan with fruit while John opted for a crepe filled with dulce de leche and topped with a scoop of butter pecan ice cream.
Marty’s flan was firmer than other versions of flan that he has had elsewhere (The flan at Mari Luna would be more analogous to Greek Yoghurt than standard yoghurt). It was delicious and very rich – Marty nicely shared a taste with John and JT and we all give it a “Thumbs Up!”. One surprise was that there was less than teaspoon of finely diced fruit (Marty had envisioned that his dessert would have more fruit – and more colorful fruit! – then what arrived)
John’s dessert was an attention grabber! The crepe and small scoop of ice cream was laced with chocolate syrup and toasted coconut. The dulce de leche inside the crepe was an incredibly rich caramel and the chocolate and ice cream made for an incredible counter point. A definite recommended “Thumbs Up!” dessert.
Bill and JT’s ice cream demonstrated another level of miscommunication with our waiter. When ordering, Bill had specifically asked for confirmation that the ice cream came with fruit as indicated on the menu and our waiter confirmed his understanding.
The ice cream that arrived with topped with a cherry on top of whipped cream laced with drizzled chocolate syrup (but disappointingly the sole cherry on top was the only fruit to be seen and similarly the menu made no mention of the addition of the chocolate syrup). While the ice cream was satisfying for both JT and Bill, it wasn’t quite what they expected based on both the menu description and the discussion with the waiter at the time it was ordered.
Our dinner at Mari Luna was overall enjoyable and the $30 prix fixe three course dinner offered a good value. (yet our choice of the prix fixe option underlined our observation that it would be difficult to have even just an entree and a drink with tax and tip for less than $30) Some of the very satisfying, “Thumbs Up!” part of our meal were counterbalanced by things that shouldn’t be happening at an established, well regarded upscale restaurant and left us wondering what the heck was going on. What was the real significance of the departure of the long time maitree’d and three long time waiters all within the past month? What did it say about the staff when one of us very unambiguously ordered Paella Valencia with seafood (and at extra cost!) and instead both the kitchen and waiter screwed up serving a vegetarian Paella? What’s the significance of a customer explicitly asking and getting confirmation that his ice cream dessert came with fruit and it arrives without fruit. At the prices that they charge at Mari Luna Latin Grille, we don’t expect things like this to happen and diminish what could have otherwise been a totally excellent, “Thumbs Up!” type of dining experience.
FACTS: Mari Luna Latin Grille – Pikesville; 1010 Reisterstown Road; 410-486-9910; http://www.mariluna.com/latin-grille ; Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner; Sunday brunch from 10 am – 3 pm; Full Bar; Vegetarian Options; On street parking in front and free valet parking at the rear.
FYI: Mari Luna Mexican Grille is also owned by Chef Luna and is located about 1 mile south of Mari Luna Latin Grille at 102 Reisterstown Road. The Mexican Grille is located in a standalone former fast food restaurant, focuses specifically on Mexican cuisine and historically has been much less expensive and less would-be upscale than the Latin Grille.