What does continued, sustained excellence look like in the food industry? How does a restaurant survive the test of time and navigate all the changes that come its way? Is it the same cook (or cooks) manning the fires for years at a time? Is it a handful of recipes, gradually refined over years and lovingly passed down from one generation to another? Or is it regular reinvention – blurring boundaries of style and flavor – and somehow sticking the landing more often than not?
Restaurateur Irena Stein has been a staple of Baltimore’s restaurant scene for over fifteen years, first as owner and operator of Café Azafrán and Alkimia, two cafés near Johns Hopkins University, before opening Alma Cocina Latina in Canton. While her cafés served a more practical fare, given their location and clientele, Alma has been a testing ground for experimentation and expression. Over the last five years, Alma has served food inspired by the cuisine of Stein’s native Venezuela, perfecting the classics while taking considerable liberties with other dishes. And the accolades poured in from up and down the East Coast, even landing a spot on Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s 8 Favorite Places to Eat last year. And although it was Stein’s brainchild, a crucial part of this success was due to Chef Enrique Limardo, who served as Alma’s Executive Chef from its opening until 2019. Limardo is gone, cooking to great acclaim at Seven Reasons in D.C., and although he remains an advisor, it’s not his kitchen anymore. So what remains of Alma? On the evidence of my meal there two weeks ago, the future remains bright – particularly in the hands of Chef Karem Barragan.
Barragan has spent the last few years cooking under Limardo’s tutelage, and it’s evident that the torch has been passed successfully. A fellow Venezuelan, she’s perfected all of her predecessor’s cooking, while also putting her personality on the menu: miniature cheese arepas with cilantro mojo tease the palate; a smoky, grilled baby octopus is ladled on a cachapa cracker with a drizzle of candy garlic emulsion, bursting with charred goodness; roasted duck breast is paired with crispy couscous and a spicy blueberry sauce that cuts through the fattiness.
Dessert takes on many shapes and forms – each one rich and delicious – but the most memorable is La Nube. Spanish for “The Cloud”, this impossibly light dessert is nonetheless full of flavor. Two thin seafoam green wafers of pistachio meringue lean on each other, shielding a white chocolate foam that rests on the bottom of the concave plate. Your spoon breaks through to the center, picking up debris from each layer along the way, until you reach the passionfruit syrup at the core. It bursts onto the metal like the yolk of a perfectly poached egg, and as it hits your tongue the tartness triggers all the dopamine in your brain. You’re full and smiling, and suddenly you notice that the lights have dimmed and your wine glass is magically refilled. How long have you been here? How was every dish so good?
Although it starts with the food, the setting plays a big part. Alma feels inviting, warm, and buzzing from the moment you walk in. The energy is high without ever overwhelming, and the tasteful decorations make it resemble the living room of an exquisitely decorated home as opposed to a commercial space. Lots of healthy houseplants dot the landscape – a fiddle leaf fig here, a few palms over there – and gorgeous photographs of Venezuelan nature, all taken by Stein, hang from the walls. Each table seems to be having a great time, and people are sharing dishes and talking and smiling, with more than a fair few coos and epicurean murmurs.
The present-day culinary world is probably the most fickle of creative industries, and Alma is clearly at an inflection point. It’s easy to tie your identity so closely to one individual – particularly when their genius dovetails perfectly with your vision and ethos. But on evidence of my experience there, Stein, Barragan, and their team are navigating the changes quite adroitly. Alma is definitely worth a repeat visit – after all, Baltimore is a lot closer than Venezuela.