Enveloped in this soothing subterranean dining room, it is easy to forget that Fells Point is teeming. Easy to forget that outside is the 'New Baltimore,' where night life is king and young adults crowd the streets looking for the throne.
But the dining room at the Admiral Fell Inn is part of the new Baltimore too -- if a part that is less noticed because it is less noisy.
Without the youth-led resurgence of Fells Point, the Admiral Fell would still be a decaying YMCA.
My husband, a friend and I descended to the inn's restaurant early enough on a Saturday that things had not picked up outside. We concentrated on the scene inside, not thinking about the scene outside.
This is a sophisticated restaurant -- in appearance, in service and, most of all, in tastes.
The lighting is indirect, the colors muted, the exposed brick a charming reminder that this building is far from new. In all, it's a lovely treatment for a basement.
That the dining room is below street level seems a blessing; maintaining its quiet, gracious feel would be trickier if the throngs were thronging by at eye level.
The food is interesting and unusual enough to deserve full attention. The menu is not large, but well thought-out with a wine recommended for each entree and a list of desserts, so diners can set their priorities early.
We pored over the menu a long time, it seemed. When we had chosen, we wound up with the lovely fate of raspberries in every course.
We began with three appetizers -- Tuscan White Bean Soup ($2.25), Baby Crabcakes ($7.95), Oysters Three Ways ($7.95) -- and the Market Salad ($3.75), which we shared.
The oysters were outstanding -- beautifully presented two each in Rockefeller, casino and Chesapeake styles. They were almost too pretty to eat, but the tastes lived up to the looks.
The three miniature crab cakes were traditionally flavored, but outdone by the excellent tartar and savory cocktail sauces.
The bean soup captured the attention of my companions. They found the complex flavor tantalizing and the mixture of tastes puzzling. Only the maitre 'd could settle the mystery; my husband was right, it was ginger that made the blend of beans, escarole and freshly grated cheese so inviting.
The salad offered the evening's first taste of raspberries. The presentation was again beautiful: pear slices, berries and warm brie on endive and radicchio with a raspberry vinaigrette.
The second taste came with one of my companions' entrees, Rack of Baby New Zealand Lamb ($19.95). A sauce of these succulent berries took the place of the traditional mint jelly and seemed to intensify the flavor of the small, tender chops.
Our other choices were Bay Scallops steamed in the shell ($16.95) and Tenderloin of Pork ($13.95). The tender scallops were served with linguine drizzled with a light, lemony sauce. The scallops were tiny and sparse -- only six -- but beautiful. With them came a generous helping of perfect asparagus.
The pork was a bit disappointing. The tenderloin was so small around and so trimmed of fat that it was dry. While we agreed that the meat was flavorful, we missed the juices that would have made it more so.
The lamb and the pork were served with asparagus and ''mushroom'' potatoes, a side dish that kept the waitresses busy with explanations. A whole potato was fashioned into a mushroom shape and cooked brown. They looked terrific; they tasted dry.
We were not served rolls or bread, though we had enjoyed a basket of hearty herbed crackers and bread sticks with our first courses.
For dessert, we had Chocolate-Bourbon Pecan Pie ($4), White Chocolate CheeseCake ($3) and Chocolate Bread Pudding With Raspberry Syrup ($4). All were splendidly, sensuously satisfying. As with the rest of our meals, the desserts' were appealing and assertive.
The bill, with three cocktails, a bottle of wine, two coffees and one espresso, was $123. The service had been very good, although the waitress could have been a bit warmer.
As we left, we noticed that the bar had filled up while we ate, so had the street. We were hit by the modern reality of Fells Point. Thankfully, this reality retains some of the area's enduring charms; we walked to our car over cobblestone streets and past two tugs docked at the foot of Broadway.
The Admiral Fell Inn
888 S. Broadway
Hours: Lunch served 11 to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner is Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Not accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas