Janice Baker


September 16, 1990|By Janice Baker

Carrol's Creek opened in 1981 in Eastport, an area south of downtown Annapolis and directly across the harbor. The vista from Carrol's Creek's windows is one argument for eating there. Partially excellent food is almost another.

What is easiest to recommend is a casual meal on some warafternoon on the restaurant's outside deck, to view the boats moored below, the town, the State House dome and the water. Our meal began in the early evening, when we shared an attractive inside room with families and boaters ending a day on the water. By nightfall, after the children had left, the character of the restaurant changed. We noticed then the drama of Carrol's Creek's lighting -- the brilliant illumination on diners in business dress and the wine-red vases of freesias.

At night, of course, when the view blurs to a matter of twinkling lights, food preparation and service take on heightened importance. The diner who, by day, enjoys a place on Carrol's Creek's porch, by night, may puzzle over how close the restaurant comes to high quality without achieving it. The kitchen impressed us sufficiently; we came away hoping it would aim for mastery. Our meal began, for example, with a loaf of sweet, insubstantial herbed bread. Its bland fluffiness may have indicated either unsteady tastes or a low assessment of the diner.

For appetizers we ordered Texas BBQ shrimp ($6.95), Southern fried frog legs ($5.95) and snails sauteed with fresh vegetables on angel hair pasta ($5.95). The firm, succulent shrimp argued beautifully for the kitchen's authority with American preparations. Their tails coiled flippantly beyond their bacon wrappers, in a sauce forcefully smoky and sweet, making wonderful bites, saucy in contrast to a cucumber and red onion salad at the side, made up of likably floppy vegetables saturated with vinegar and sweetness.

The floured, sauteed frog legs worked equally well, partly because the tomato and onion relish beside them tasted exuberantly of fresh tomatoes in high season, and partly because it was a pleasure to pick the frogs' simple and pretty bones clean.

Among our first courses, only the Italo-Franco-American pasta dish was a disappointment. What is the current inexplicable passion- that-won't-go-away for noodles in gummy plasters of reduced heavy cream? Oh, for a sauce that lets snails be snails, noodles be noodles!

House salads had the strong virtues of fresh romaine and just-sliced cucumbers, but were hobbled by whole wintry cherry tomatoes and thick clots of sprouts and grated cheese dressed with sweetness and vinegar. We searched in vain for the flavors of olive oil -- or any oil.

Our best entree, shrimp scampi tasso ($18.50), was uncomplicated and delightful. Plain shrimp in cream (the amiable consistency of cream that hasn't been thickened), were combined with green and red pepper dice and bold small squares of salted ham. Colors were appetizing, and tastes clear and assertive.

Our other two entrees were quasi-hits. Fine-quality beef in the tournedos with bourbon and black walnuts ($21.50) was served in 1/2 -inch slices, not thick chunks -- an acceptable surprise. What didn't work was the sauce, a faint-hearted stirring together of cream and bourbon that transmitted mild sweetness but had no character.

Blackened redfish, like our other dishes, showed the kitchen maintains high standards when buying meats and seafood. Also, the moist, delicious fillet was expertly cooked, and the Cajun spicing was interesting without being raucous or explosive. The sauce, however, was a dud. Hollandaise makes an odd match with Cajun-spiced fish, first off, but more important, it was a shallow, dull hollandaise that I imagine being sent out from a sauce factory in cans or packages.

Vegetables and rice were handled perfunctorily. Dried herbs had been added to the rice, while the yellow squash, zucchini, cauliflower and carrots were lightly oiled.

The restaurant's desserts are made in-house. We liked the nuts among the fluffy passages of a coconut macadamia nut cake ($3.95) that was, nuts aside, unremarkable. By contrast, a dense, yet not brickish slice of chocolate decadence ($3.95) was intensely chocolate, smooth, rich and confident, giving proof the dessert chef knows some alchemy when he's inspired.

We found service up and down. No one deserted us for any long stretches, or afflicted us with horrendous gaffes. Yet there were hiccups in style. The busboy wanted to clear before we'd finished eating. When we asked for clean knives after our first courses, our waiter sniffed, "What did you do with your other ones?" When a meal for three costs $125 before tip, a waiter

should fetch knives when asked.

* Next: The Tell Tale Hearth

Carrol's Creek, 410 Severn Ave., Annapolis, 269-1406

Hours: Mondays to Saturdays, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays, brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Accepts: American Express, Master Card, Visa andDiners Club

Features: American cuisine

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