The Fells Point Cafe just celebrated its first birthday. What makes the cafe unusual is, it's part of a cafe/theater/nightclub combi- nation, all under one roof, located in the second block up from the water on the east side of Broadway.
How does the combination affect dinner? Near as we could tell, only barely. Mid-evening, three people near us left their entrees on the table and vanished through a door in the back of the room. Poof. Beyond the doorway, for a moment we glimpsed a stage.
What we were there to find out, though, was a.) whether or not we would eat well at the Fells Point Cafe, and b.) what there was to look at while we ate.
Starting with b.), the dining room is modest. One large room. The upper half of the walls is papered in paisley, and decorated with brass lamps and a variety of old, cheerful, gilt-frame mirrors. Unfinished wood boards cover the lower half. At the bar along one wall, the knees of people who sit at the counter rub against boards similar to the boards that cover the lower half of the walls of the room.
There are white and green cloths on the tables. Fresh flowers, cloth flowers (tulips in a vase on the bar) and aromatic leaves (a collection of eucalyptus branches on the back of a door) soften things up some.
The menu focus is on fish -- crab cakes, shrimp and scallops, Cajun-style blackened swordfish, Norwegian salmon, jumbo shrimp, and cioppino. Cioppino usually means fish stew, but not at the Fells Point Cafe, where the fish appears over fettuccine. Lamb chops, Oriental pork chops, chicken with shiitake mushrooms, and filet mignon with green peppercorns may interest other tastes. Entree prices fall between $12.95 and $17.95.
For appetizers, we began with a bowl of the soup of the day, a gazpacho ($3), steamed mussels Provencal ($4.95) and Margarita shrimp ($6.95). The day was hot, hence, probably, the kitchen's choice of gazpacho. However, with tomatoes not yet in season, the soup was a mixture of tomatoes cold from the can, chopped onion, green pepper and sliced cucumber that wasn't freshly sliced. Hot sauce added some unintegrated zip, but canceled out the delicate flavors of a topping of crab.
We conjectured the tasteless steamed mussels were cooked in buckets of water. The shreds of leek, winter tomato, garlic and wine which should have added flavor didn't.
For those unversed in the formulas of bartending, a Margarita means tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice and a salt rime around the rim of the glass. I made myself one the next day to remember the real thing -- subtly sweetened lime, the punch of high-proof liquor, and, by association, a waft from a Mexican border town. The cafe's Margarita shrimp was something else entirely -- a glass of liquid that was syrupy orange in taste and deeply buttery along the top half inch. Four mammoth shrimp clung to the glass, bodies in the butter, tails over the side. They were gorgeous shrimp.
Our entrees were better. "Shrimp and scallops with fettuccine in a rosa sauce" ($14.95) mixed a generous quantity of large shrimp and silky, just-done scallops into a tomato-touched, reduced heavy cream sauce. The fettuccine were thicker than my idea of prime pasta, but we enjoyed what we had.
Thickened cream also sauced a dish of sauteed chicken breasts ($12.95), in this case accented with Dijon mustard and mixed with buttery spinach and sliced shiitake mushrooms. The accompaniments were the best parts of the meal -- spears of fresh asparagus, and orzo (a rice-shaped pasta) freshened with particles of broccoli florets. Orzo and asparagus were also part of a simple and carefully cooked entree of pan-blackened, Cajun-spiced swordfish ($14.95). The Old Bay-reminiscent spice was intensely salty, but the fish itself was moist and pleasant.
With desserts, we were back on rocky ground. We tried two from a platter of them. A lemon cake ($3) consisted of fluffy cake layers without taste bound by large, vaguely lemon layers of gelatin. Over the top was what looked like white wedding cake frosting; its tastes were featureless. A slice of apple strudel offered the assets of a density of apples and raisins, and the liabilities of a blizzard of cinnamon under a crust like the back of a note pad.
We were chagrined, at first, by service that made us feel frostiness was the new chic. Then we realized our waitress had more to do than could be done gracefully. We liked her for charging us $10 for four glasses of the house Mondavi chardonnay, instead of the $12 that four $3 glasses would have cost. "It's a bottle's worth," she said. Sensible. *
Fells Point Cafe, 723 S. Broadway, 327-8800
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays; dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, until 9 p.m. Sundays
Accepts: ** /- *
No-smoking area: No
Wheelchair access: No