Eating disappointing meals makes me ravenous for good food. The day after dinner at Nickel City Grill, I charred thin, long, fresh eggplants over the gas fire (never mind that it was 90 degrees outside) and made baba ghanouj, which I ate with a sourdough roll (homemade) and a salad of garden lettuce, radicchio, extra virgin olive oil, first-rate vinegar and a strong clove of garlic. My pact with the pleasures of eating renewed, I thought about the night before.
Dinner hadn't been cheap: $150 for four of us; $128.46 before we added in the tip. Our waiter had worked hard. There was no sense shortchanging him, nor could he help having had to wait on too many tables, leaving us to stare at dirty plates too long. What had the money bought? The harbor. The reliably interesting harbor.
Of course, it also bought food, a table, four chairs and loud music broadcast over two small loudspeakers above the restaurant's patio doors, but it was the harbor that gave good value.
Opened in mid-July, the Nickel City Grill occupies the Pratt Street Pavilion's ground floor slot nearest the World Trade Center. The menu emphasizes shellfish and chicken; the day's sheet of specials was predominantly fish. After sampling a variety of preparations, the four of us recommend the popcorn shrimp ($5.95).
"Popcorn" meant deep-fried and puffy with batter. What impressed us was how many shrimp there were for an appetizer. Eaten quickly, before they got cold and soggy (plates were cold), and dipped in horseradish barbecue sauce (blessings on the horseradish), the shrimp were tasty and could have made an acceptable dinner with the house rolls.
We liked our crab cake ($6.95), too, though it was better in the middle, where it seemed more completely crab, than at the edge, where breading and cooking oils became more obvious. An accompanying oilless, saltless, tasteless black-eyed peas salad didn't work, however, in spite of chopped ripe peppers and red onion.
Two soups were toss-offs. Wild rice and mushroom ($2.25 a cup) was made with rice that wasn't wild, invisible mushrooms and a broth that had color and salt. A cup of the crab corn chowder ($2.25) had aggressive, sherry-family flavors, and included a shred of crab and a few corn kernels.
For entrees, we thought we should try the house blockbuster, Nickel City Clambake ($21.95), described as "a real East Coast dinner for one. Includes a 1-pound Maine lobster, clams, chicken rubbed with an herb marinade and spit roasted, corn on the cob, and gourmet coleslaw." My friend who had this for dinner left the table hungry. The lobster was a partial lobster. The meat that was extractable was dry. The overcooked clams required serious chewing. The chicken lay in a soup of colored, salted water and oil, the corn tasted like the kind sold frozen on the cob in plastic bags, and the gourmet coleslaw was slivers of carrot and onion, wet with broth.
Rainbow trout with a red onion and peach relish ($13.95) combined a tasteless, dry and relatively small half-trout, skin on, with chopped red onion and slices of unripe, peeled peach. A slab of porterhouse steak ($18.95 on the specials menu) was enormous, but tough and without taste. We'd asked for it medium rare. It arrived medium, covered with what the menu called "red onion marmalade." My guess is, this was onions cooked in vinegar and sugar.
Our best entree was our cheapest: Hannah's rotisserie chicken ($11.95). It tasted the way I imagine those rotisserie chickens taste that go around and around in a warm glass box at the store. It was simple and not unpleasant, but overcooked. Fresh, cooked yellow squash and zucchini, and greasy, overcooked chunks of potato came with the trout, the beef and the chicken.
The best of our desserts was a triangle of a light, commercial-tasting cheesecake ($3.95), improved by a purple drizzle of berry essence over the top. Bourbon pecan pie ($4.50) consisted of pecans, an odd, wet, floury filling and an unbreakable crust. A tasteless butterscotch pie ($4.50) had the texture of pumpkin pie crossed with an uncooked, floury dough. The menu says the whipped cream was real.
Decaffeinated coffees ($1.25 each) were thick, black and harsh. Emptying a full pitcher of cream into four of them, we still faced essentially black coffee.
@4 Now, about my salad and the sourdough roll . . .
NICKEL CITY GRILL,
Pratt Street Pavilion, Harborplace, 752-0900
Sundays and Mondays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesdays to Thursdays until 11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until midnight
ACCEPTS: All major credit cards
FEATURES: Grilled seafood
NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes