In many ways, Te Amo restaurant is like a frustrating beau who can be fun and thoughtful, but who sometimes doesn't get the big picture. And just when you're ready to dump him, he does something surprisingly intuitive.
The piano bar in Canton is like that. It first billed itself as a Spanish tapas bar, which confused people who were expecting food along the lines of Tapas Adela. Te Amo's small-plates menu is more casual and less focused.
It can be best described as fusion bar food with some Spanish twists. (After all, the chef, Hector Boltero, is from Spain.) A new outdoor sign will be changed to "Te Amo Restaurant" to better reflect the food offerings.
The restaurant is divided into two spaces: a downstairs bar and an upstairs dining room. A bartender will cheerfully direct you to the second level, where there is a real piano bar—with gold-colored stools around it and a pianist playing on Wednesdays through Sundays.
On both of my visits, local crooner Marcus Dagan was tickling out tunes from the Frank Sinatra era. Other musicians play there, too. Whenever Marcus took a break, a Norah Jones music video played on a flat screen, keeping the ambiance going. (So don't worry when you see the TV. You aren't going to be blasted with a rowdy sports game during dinner.)
The room is attractive and chic with brick walls, a wood floor, bare tables, decorative pillows, and, alas, the most uncomfortable seats I've encountered. There's a long plank of cushioned seating along the walls with low ottomans (read: no backs) on the other side of the tables. Eventually, the ottoman people end up hunched over their meals. Not fun. At press time, I was told that might change.
I hope so because Te Amo is a nice place to linger and listen to the music while sharing multiple plates. As I mentioned, this isn't fancy fare. There are sliders—lamb or bison. I had the lamb, featuring three juicy patties on soft rolls. My friend and I also shared a lovely Caprese salad with three tomato slices decked out with thick slabs of fresh mozzarella and basil and drizzled with a rich mahogany balsamic. We also had mahi bites—fresh grilled nuggets accompanied by remoulade sauce.
There is house-made white and red sangria and a wine list that includes a concise selection, including South American, Spanish, and U.S. bottles. Wine pours, by the glass, are generous.
We also had a sweet server, Mike, who told us it was his second day on the job. He had previously worked in chain restaurants so he wasn't totally new to the service industry. He made every effort to impress us.
This was an improvement over my first visit to Te Amo a couple of weeks earlier with two friends. The servers that night were personable but couldn't keep up with the needs of the room.
My guests and I ordered a range of food, most of it successful. The downsides were the "saffron-seasoned Spanish rice" that tasted like the stuff that comes out of a box with nary a hint of saffron and too much cumin, and the tacos Spanish style with mahi hunks that had potential but didn't arrive with the advertised sour cream and salsa and had another mound of the rice.
The prize for best design goes to the asparagus wrap—two bundles of stalks (watch out for the toothpicks!) wrapped in Spanish and Italian meats and dusted with Asiago and manchego cheeses. Note: The menu says the dish is served with "blackberry wasabi sauce." I couldn't detect any heat at all in the decorative liquid drops on the plate. They tasted like fruit jam, with the total dish reminding me of a Monte Cristo sandwich minus the bread.
Perhaps the most delicious dish of the night was the rockfish cooked tempura style with a spicy remoulade sauce to give the delicate fish some backbone. We also dug into Spanish-seasoned meatballs (two huge rounds) that were more reminiscent of Italy with a charming marinara sauce. Our last savory dish was a small bucket of truffle fries that were justly salty and addictive. We couldn't discern any Parmesan cheese (described on the menu), but we didn't care.
There were two cakes available for dessert. We indulged in both—huge, moist wedges of red-velvet cake with cream-cheese icing (we couldn't taste the "peanut-butter-cup" flavor the menu described) and our favorite, a French vanilla orange cake that was like a breath of the Florida citrus groves.
Te Amo owners Steve and Bethann Heintzelman have ambitious plans for the local restaurant scene, including the new Dog Bar with international hot dogs in Canton and an eatery-to-be determined in Scarlett Place in the Inner Harbor. Steve isn't a novice to the business. He ran Sonoma's in Columbia for several years and, most recently, Chantz Bar and Grill in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Yes, Te Amo has some kinks that the owners are working on. They're mostly identity issues. Dropping "Spanish tapas bar" from the name, better describing the food on the menu, and changing the seating aren't difficult fixes.
We're counting on Te Amo—which means "I Love You" in Spanish but was named after a cigar brand that Steve smokes—to show off its true personality soon and be worthy of your undying love or, at least, a little fling.