It has been Mobtown and Crabtown and Charm City. And, for a while, Baltimore was Nickel City. This was early in the 20th century, when a nickel actually bought something: a sandwich, a beer, a taxi dance or a trolley ride. When the buffalo nickel was introduced in 1913, Baltimoreans used more of them than anyone else in the country.
This history lesson comes courtesy of the new Nickel City Grill in Harborplace. The owner and chef are Sunbelters, but their place pays tribute to our town's history; the deco design, which uses lots of dark wood and features sleek booths that resemble railroad dining cars, recalls Baltimore's former reputation as an industrial and transportation center, and the menu updates the region's famed seafood, chicken and ribs.
Culinarily speaking, though, Nickel City Grill owes just as much to that other City on the Bay. What would our Baltimorean forefathers have made of pink peppercorns, sun-dried tomatoes, colorful pasta and "popcorn calamari"? (The very notion of "gourmet coleslaw" would have made them laugh into their terrapin soup.) There's nothing old-fashioned about a restaurant where you can listen to "Louie, Louie" while eating creme brulee.
The bread basket gave us a sampling of the restaurant's ambitions, and its quality. The hot rolls were flavored with herbs and sun-dried tomatoes, and served with honey butter. Irresistible. Noticing how much we were enjoying them, our charming waiter bagged several fresh rolls for us to take home.
She-crab corn chowder ($2.25 a cup) had an unusual flavor -- more like green pepper than crab or corn -- but was laden with crab lumps so large we thought they were chunks of potato. Popcorn calamari ($5.95), alas, was horribly salty.
Grilled seafoods are Nickel City's forte, and a new list is prepared daily. Yellowfin tuna ($15.95) marinated in sweetly pungent citrus vinaigrette with pink peppercorns; the fish steak was served atop a colorful melange of green and yellow squash and sweet red onions. The taste was light, but the portion ample enough to provide lunch the next day.
Spinach fettuccine with grilled chicken tenders ($12.95), tossed with sliced mushrooms and pine nuts, did not sound like a Chinese stir-fry, but a soy-flavored sauce gave it the taste of one. It wasn't bad, but it did stray quite a way from those Maryland roots we mentioned.
The apple cobbler ($4.95), on the other, was traditional as can be. But spend an extra quarter and get the swanky, ultra-creamy creme brulee instead.
By the way, nothing here costs a nickel. But the parking is free. Park across Pratt Street, in the lot that the nostalgic among us remember as the location of the News-American.
Nickel City Grill
Where: Pratt St. Pavilion, Harborplace.
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to midnight Sundays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Credit Cards: AE, C, CB, DC, MC, V.
Features: Contemporary American food, grills, light fare.
Non-smoking section? Yes.