Get ready for a flavor explosion at Centro Tapas Bar. Chef/owner George Dailey comfortably weaves his South American heritage into Spanish-influenced small plates at the Federal Hill restaurant that once housed The Bicycle. You immediately get a good feeling about the authenticity of this place when you see cured hams hanging in the open kitchen.
A charcuterie plate of meats and cheeses soon confirms that impression. On a pristine marble slab, an assortment (that we chose) was lush and colorful: thin slices of Serrano ham, pimenton-cured pork loin, spreadable (yes!) chorizo sausage, manchego cheese, and the most heavenly, crumbly Cabrales blue. Small fingers of quince paste provided a subtle sweetness to the spread.
Dailey is no stranger to the restaurant business. He was an executive sous chef in Boston before moving here with his wife, Jessica, a Baltimore native, about five years ago to be closer to family. Not long after their arrival, he opened On the Hill Cafe in Bolton Hill.
It was only a matter of time before he took on a new cooking challenge, Dailey told us last spring when he opened Centro. Mostly, he was waiting for his son, Jack, now six, to get a little older.
So when the Daileys saw the Light Street property was for rent last winter, they grabbed it and spruced up the space, painting the walls a peaceful gray shade and adding scenic Spanish photos.
There’s a casual European flair with vases of lavender on bare tables, wood floors, and big pots of fragrant rosemary in the dining room. We liked that a genial cook snipped from the herb while we were there.
There’s also a small bar with silver stools where you can dine. We noticed a couple of single diners enjoying tapas and conversation with the bartender there. If the weather cooperates, you can head to the charming outdoor patio.
No matter where you sit, you will soon be awash in plates of food, starting with a complimentary basket of rosemary bread slices served with a tangy red mojo (tomato based with smoked paprika and garlic) for dipping and, for us, the above-mentioned charcuterie tray and boquerones, pickled white anchovies that were chubby and bursting with good fishy flavor.
Our server was attentive enough to keep the kitchen apprised of our pace and to stagger the dishes. Just a note: Rightly or wrongly, it’s assumed that the table will be sharing the various plates. If you want something just for yourself, let the staff know and they’ll be accommodating.
Wine is served in small jelly-jar-like glasses—another cute bistro touch—and we enjoyed an excellent La Linda Torrontes from Argentina’s Mendoza region. There’s also white and red sangria by the glass or pitcher. The white tasted like refreshing apple juice.
The fun of tapas is passing around the plates—and that’s what we did. We’re hard pressed to pick favorites, but we’d definitely return for the lamb meatballs stacked vertically on tiny wooden skewers with caramelized pearl onions and fingerling potatoes in mint mojo, and a petite filet mignon cooked as rare as legal, wrapped in bacon, and plated with grilled chorizo, caramelized plantains, fried yuca, and cilantro mojo.
The steak just called for an accompaniment of sautéed spinach with chickpeas, chopped dates, and pine-nut butter. Got to have those greens! We also smiled over the crunchy sweet-corn pancake with queso blanco and a bright chili glaze.
A tiny succulent square of roasted pork belly with an agave-chile sauce and tender hominy, and crispy rockfish fritters with a swish of pale-yellow almond aioli also kept our taste buds entertained.
Counter the savory dishes with some worthy desserts like churros—the seemingly ever-present sugar-dusted fritters on a lot of menus these days—with a thick Spanish drinking chocolate or the engaging coconut custard with rich caramel.
Instead of a traditional tres leches cake, Centro offers a cinco leches version. A light, almond cake is soaked in three kinds of milk—coconut, condensed, and evaporated—and finished with dulce de leche (made with sugar and cream) and frothy whipped cream. It’s as great and decadent as it sounds!
It also calls for a glass of refined tawny port. Centro is the kind of place where you don’t mind lingering anyway.
Chef Dailey brings a wonderful culinary background and personal culture to Centro. We hope diners don’t overlook this find that may not get the foot traffic and exposure of more centrally located Fed Hill restaurants. (It’s near Fort Avenue.) It’s well worth the discovery.