Luring Fish Lovers

DINING OUT

December 01, 1991|By JANICE BAKER

In the novel "The Man Who Loved Children," Christina Stead described Annapolis south of Spa Creek in the late '30s: "Eastport is a pleasant, little, hopeless, poor mudbank . . . the sort of place for a fisherman, a mudstalker and hookbaiter, but [to any other person it] seems pretty messy, wet, and penurious." Sam Pollit, her exasperating central character, planned a pamphlet, "Eastport Squalor: A Backwater of the Chesapeake."

Nowadays, Eastport doesn't look squalid, and, from the look of it, more yachts drop anchor in the creek than fishing boats. O'Leary's, which has been in the area more than 50 years, may send out a pungent whiff of the seamen's past from O'Leary's Fish Market on the end of Third Street, but O'Leary's Seafood Restaurant, at the corner of Severn Avenue and Third, is an entirely prosperous, present-tense operation.

Lacking a water view, the restaurant draws customers with fresh fish, whose kinds and prices are posted for the day on a chalkboard near the bar. It also offers an attractive environment. Tables in the two rooms are set with white tablecloths, three rustic, wooden fish market signs hang on the walls, lighting is soft, and next to the windows, tall, graceful grasses shield diners from too bald a view of the parking lot.

There are cold appetizers -- oysters, clams, shrimp, crab and sashimi. There are hot appetizers -- oysters Rockefeller, fried squid, clams casino, steamed mussels and baked brie en croute. Shellfish entrees include garlic shrimp, crab cakes and a platter of fried shellfish. The fresh fish listed on the chalkboard can be mesquite-grilled, sauteed, poached or baked. Fish-hostile or fish-weary diners can choose from among a New York strip steak, chicken Marsala and mesquite-grilled raspberry chicken. Prices start at $9.95 for simmered mussels, but are generally in the $16-to-$18 range.

Three of us began dinner with a cup of clam chowder ($1.95) and two appetizers described to us in the course of a long recitation by our waitress. (Yes, we were bold enough to say we wished they'd been written out.) While the chowder was partly clams and onion, it was predominantly heavy cream. Like diamonds and blue-chip stocks, cream has its wiles, but I tend to think one should hold out for subtler wooing.

Four grilled Cajun-spiced shrimp on a skewer were not too hot to like. While $4.95 meant about $1.25 per small shrimp, to their credit they were firm and fresh, and we liked the cool, soothing sour cream-and-cucumber sauce that O'Leary's sends to the table with whatever is blackened and spicy. Four steamed clams and six steamed mussels (one clammed shut) ($4.95) had the virtue of freshness, and the vice of deeply pooled butter in the bottom of the dish.

Ingredients in the house salads were beautifully fresh -- garden lettuce, shards of romaine, a slice of cucumber, tomato and grated carrot, together with pebbles of hard-boiled egg. We quarreled with the practice of serving the salads so heavily dressed, however. The dressings -- both sweet honey and blue cheese -- weighed down the greens, turning healthy salad eating into something approaching excess.

Our entrees argued two things: O'Leary's fish is fresh, and O'Leary's kitchen is best at very basic operations. From the chalkboard, we ordered salmon, and we specified poaching ($17.95). It was a delicious, large piece of fish, cooked to perfection, and served with a hollandaise that tasted emphatically, flatly saltless.

From the waitress' recited specials, we ordered a trout in lobster sauce ($17.95). The trout, too, was fresh and impeccable, its sauce a gently sweet, herbed heavy cream. Like the salmon, the trout came with a helping of flavored rice mixed with sliced, blanched almonds. However, what was wanted, really, was potato, to absorb the sauces' richness.

For our third entree, we ordered a dish we thought might test the kitchen's abilities to produce something more complex -- baked crab meat almondine, or lump crab meat baked in a cognac cream sauce with almonds ($15.95). It could have been light but wasn't. What we took to be perhaps a crab-binding egg-and-butter emulsion separated under high heat, to leave a deep oily pool in the bottom of the ramekin. Then some thick green pasta -- unsalted -- came coated in a thickened cream, so that, with butter in the crab and cream in the pasta, the entree was formidably rich.

One of the finds of the evening was a pleasing bottle of Edna Valley chardonnay ($29.25). Other finds were appealing desserts. Our guest -- a painter -- chuckled that a plain lemon mousse tasted cool like chrome yellow, not warm like cadmium lemon ($2.75). Lustier appetites may prefer the strongly chocolate, nutty taste of chocolate silk pie, or a seasonally pertinent pumpkin cheesecake (both $3.25).

Later, we walked by the water to discuss what we thought of it all: a superfluity of oil and cream, but good fish, no music/Muzak, and a genial, fish-house atmosphere.Next: Imperial Hotel

O'LEARY'S,

310 Third St., Annapolis, (410) 263-0884

HOURS:

Dinner Sundays to Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.,

Fridays and Saturdays 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

ACCEPTS: AE, MC, V

FEATURES: Seafood

NO-SMOKING AREA: No

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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