Seafood lovers may have noticed that so many Fisherman's Wharf restaurants have opened up in the Baltimore area that it's hard to keep track of them. But if you look closely, you'll find that this one is called Mo's Fisherman's Wharf, and that one is called Fisherman's Wharf of Pikesville, and the latest is named the Wharfside. That's because they're no longer part of the same chain; the two owners split up a couple of years ago.
The Wharfside, which opened in Catonsville last October, is connected only to the Fisherman's Wharf of Pikesville. The concept behind both restaurants is simple. They offer a staggering selection of seafood dishes that are reasonably priced, if not exactly inexpensive. (The night we were there a $1.50 surcharge had been added to the crab meat prices. That should disappear as the season advances.)
To give you some idea of what I mean by a staggering selection, the menu has 10 lobster dishes and 23 fresh-fish choices, from mako shark to tile. Plus much more. From our experience, though, you'd do best to stick to the comparatively short list of daily specials. A bowl of seafood chowder ($2.95) was simple and satisfying, chock-full of crab and shrimp and fish, the soup base creamy and full of flavor. Shad with shad roe and bacon ($16.99) was equally well done. The huge whole fish was completely boned, and its dark, sweet flesh had been cooked to firm perfection. A refined lemon butter sauce finished it off. The roe had been a little overcooked, but was perfectly fresh and good-tasting, and the bacon strips with it were crisp and smoky.
If that had been our meal, I wouldn't have enough to say in praise of the Wharfside. Unfortunately, everything else had ifs, ands and buts attached to it.
If only the mussels had tasted as fresh as the clams, oysters and shrimp in the steamed combination appetizer ($6.95), it would have been superb. Everything was nicely cooked, and there was enough shellfish to make a complete meal. The two broiled crab cakes ($14.95) were mammoth and full of back fin, but they lacked pizazz -- maybe it was just that they arrived not quite hot enough.
We didn't try some of the more elaborate concoctions like the lump crab meat fettuccine Alfredo or lobster Newburg, but the delicacy of the shad's lemon butter sauce and the nicely done bearnaise on a first course of artichoke hearts and crab ($6.95) made me pretty sure the Wharfside kitchen could carry them off if it didn't overcook the seafood.
The low point of our meal was the Wharfside broiled combination ($16.95): a fillet of orange roughy, crab imperial, scallops, shrimp, a clam casino and an oyster Rockefeller. It tasted as if everything had been broiled together for the same long length of time, so that some of the seafood (like the clam) had practically shriveled up, and all of it was overcooked. True, portions were generous, but so what?
Prices are reasonable enough that you might expect accompaniments to be extra, but a generous salad or vegetables come with each meal. Sauteed summer squash turned out to be zucchini in a cream sauce, and not very good at that, but fat homemade french fries and fresh coleslaw pleased us all.
Desserts, handsome ones, are offered (we sampled a super-fudge chocolate bourbon cake); but I defy anyone to show any real interest in them after a dinner the size of the one we had.
The Wharfside has a lot going for it, including excellent service, but one thing it doesn't have is atmosphere. Located where Russell's used to be, it's a big, plain restaurant with almost no personality. The dropped ceiling makes it feel a little closed in, colors are bland and the artwork would have to fall off the walls before you'd notice it. Only the etched-glass panels have a nautical theme.
The most striking feature of the place is the seafood case at the front of the restaurant. All the items on the menu are available raw. In other words, the Wharfside is a seafood market as well as a restaurant. The market opens a little before the restaurant does; its hours are 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Wharfside, 1600 Frederick Road, Catonsville, (410) 788-1400. Open every day for lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking
area: no. Wheelchair access: yes.Next: Zorba's