Spice Would Be Nice

If Mallorca's any indication, the plain in Spain falls mainly on the food.

Mallorca 1390 West Ninth Street

216-687-9494 Camarones al Ajillo , $8.95

Gazpacho, $3.95

Paella Valenciana, $17.95

Grouper, $19.95

Dover Sole, $19.95

Veal Stew, $17.95

Flan, $4.95

Tortuffo, $6.95

Chocolate Layer Cake, $3.95

Espresso (Café Cortado), $2.00

Mallorca's specialty: A room with a view. - Walter  Novak
Mallorca's specialty: A room with a view.
Like our Dover sole and grouper on a recent Saturday night, our feelings about Mallorca, downtown's popular Spanish restaurant, are lukewarm.

If we were to judge only by the diverse crowd that flocks to this Warehouse District restaurant -- silver-haired gentlemen with their fur-bedecked sweeties, families with small children, and young couples out on dates -- we might well conclude that Mallorca is one of the city's brightest hot spots. And, in fact, the almost four-year-old dining room, which is one of four Mediterranean-themed restaurants owned by Manolo Torres, is not without merit. (Other Mallorcas are located in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Passaic, New Jersey.)

Among its legitimate draws is its team of gracious, formally attired servers, with their Mediterranean good looks and charming accents. From the elegant dining room captains, who take orders and monitor diners' satisfaction, to the super-efficient assistants, who bring the food, crumb the tables, and refill water glasses, the staff lavishes guests with old-fashioned service and style.

While Mallorca's two simply decorated dining rooms and long, narrow bar can't compare to the opulence displayed by many of its neighbors, the space has an unassuming air of gentility that makes it pleasantly homey. (It must be admitted, however, that the restaurant -- which does not accept weekend reservations for parties of less than six -- can feel terribly crowded and noisy at the peak of a Saturday night.)

The menu, too, is enticing, with a wide variety of traditional Spanish dishes rarely found in other Cleveland restaurants. Golden garlic soup (Sopa de Ajo), classic Paella Valenciana, and bracing café cortado are regular features at Mallorca, and the already large written menu is supplemented by a host of daily appetizer, entrée, and fresh fish specials that the dining room captains recite from memory.

The sense of being an honored guest doesn't end when the last course is served, either. Diners who have ordered wine or spirits with their meals are treated to a complimentary after-dinner drink of Algarvinha, an almond-flavored liqueur from Portugal. It's a simple touch, but one that makes it easy to leave the restaurant with a smile on one's face and a nice, warm feeling in the tummy.

The amply sized entrées come with bread, a tossed salad, and platters of freshly made potato chips, mixed fresh vegetables, and rice for family-style sharing. One can't help but suspect that these enormous portions are another one of Mallorca's attractions for a substantial proportion of its guests.

But while there may be lots of it, the downside for Mallorca's diners is this: Much of the food simply isn't all that good.

Probably the single biggest flavor problem we encountered during our recent visits was the kitchen's heavy-handed use of salt, a practice that distorts the flavor balance and overwhelms any subtle nuances of taste a dish may have had.

Take, for example, what was in most other respects a very good special of slowly cooked Veal Stew. Cubes of flavorful veal -- so succulent you could cut them with a sharp look -- and chunks of meltingly tender carrot and red, green, and yellow pepper, served in a translucent gravy, were just right for ladling onto a pile of yellow rice. (Although we found the rice to be bland, Torres says it is flavored and colored with saffron, an expensive and pungent spice that is a staple in Spanish kitchens.)

But while the stew's savory meat and vegetables were delicious, the salty gravy dulled the dish's more subtle flavor notes and in the process took it down a peg or two, from excellent to merely OK. (Not to mention that it also had us up all night gulping water.)

The kitchen also tended to overcook both fish and shellfish. A thin filet of Dover sole, which, at its best, is mild and delicate, and a thicker filet of grouper were both underflavored and overcooked. (And yet, they still managed to arrive at the table lukewarm.) And some of the scallops and the half lobster tail that were part of both the paella and the Mariscada Ajillo (assorted seafood in a rich but salty garlic sauce) were slightly tough and chewy.

Still, the Paella Valenciana -- a generous portion of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, the half lobster tail, chicken, and chorizo sausage in a saffron-flavored seafood broth, served on more yellow rice -- was probably the best tasting of the dishes that we sampled. Despite the occasional chewy scallop and the dry lobster tail, and the small chicken bones that lurked beneath the rice, the multiple flavors were robust and deliciously well-balanced.

The menu urges diners to "Try our unique homemade Sangria," and so, despite haunting memories of the syrupy sweet red-wine-and-fruit-juice blends that we used to drink back in our Annie Greenspring days, we ordered up a pitcher. We were delighted to find that Mallorca's sangria is nothing at all like what we used to guzzle. Instead, it was a crisp, refreshing, and fruity but not at all sugary drink -- flavored with chunks of apples and oranges -- that went down with the greatest of ease.

As for the family-style side dishes that accompany each entrée and add to the sense of largesse, they were nothing special. A chewy French-style baguette was served at room temperature, with plastic tubs of butter. The small tossed salad was a frigid blend of tired, wilted greens topped with hunks of pale hothouse tomato, a slice of crisp hearts of palm, and a pouf of watercress in a sweet-tart French dressing.

The platter of cooked fresh vegetables included carrot sticks, whole green beans, pea pods, and big florets of broccoli and cauliflower -- some properly cooked and others nearly raw -- in a mild dressing of olive oil and white wine. And, ironically, the freshly made potato chips, which could have used some salt, didn't seem to have been salted at all.

Guests whose idea of a satisfactory meal doesn't require quite so much food might be better served with one of Mallorca's soups. A classic cold gazpacho of very finely chopped cucumber, green pepper, onion, and tomato, with a hint of spicy hot pepper, was a good bet. Sopa de Ajo -- garlicky chicken broth in which a whole egg had been cooked until not entirely firm -- was very rich and flavorful, with the sweet, vaguely bitter bite of garlic and a luxuriant creaminess lent by the still-runny egg yolk. Likewise, we enjoyed the smokiness of Caldo Gallego, a Spanish vegetable soup of white beans, bits of chorizo sausage, small cubes of potato, and collard greens in chicken broth. However, while the greens were plentiful, the other ingredients were scarce, and the soup, although tasty, was far from hearty.

Another good choice for smaller appetites is Camarones al Ajillo (garlic shrimp), an ample appetizer of crisp, properly cooked shrimp in a subtly flavored sauce of garlic, olive oil, and paprika. Four of us shared an order as a prelude to our dinners, and it could have easily made a light lunch.

An appetizer special of Ostras Rellenas (eight large oysters on the half-shell topped with finely chopped sausage, bacon, peppers, and mozzarella cheese) was also good, if less complex than we had expected from its description. Again, the main flavoring agent seemed to be salt, and the little oysters themselves, hidden beneath the generously applied topping, seemed almost tasteless in comparison.

Desserts are also a mixed bag at Mallorca. From best to worst, a traditional flan -- a firm portion of eggy custard topped with a bit of caramelized sugar syrup -- was our favorite. Snowy white rice pudding had a delicate citrus scent, although the rice was still quite firm. Tortuffo -- a small, round truffle of vanilla and chocolate ice cream coated with cocoa powder and chopped almonds, then quartered and arranged on a plate with a garnish of bland whipped topping and a maraschino cherry -- was nothing special, especially considering its $6.95 price tag. (This dessert, along with Mallorca's sorbets, is imported from Italy.) And a slice of dry, bitter homemade chocolate layer cake, frosted with more of the whipped topping and a drizzle of chocolate syrup, tasted like it had come straight out of a box.

However, we were unanimous in our enjoyment of tiny cups of café cortado -- dense, bitter espresso topped with a layer of steamed but not frothed milk -- and the little glasses of complimentary Algarvinha that put the end to our meal.

It's worth remembering that, with cold weather charging down on Cleveland like a runaway train, most of us will soon be pining for a touch of sunny Spain. But while Mallorca delivers a few warm Mediterranean moments, its food often falters in both flavor and preparation. Sadly, in a chilly city that needs all the heat it can get, this restaurant is a tepid dining alternative.

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