John Steven Ltd., 1800 Thames St., (410) 327-5561. Open every day for lunch and dinner. MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair access: no.
Charles Doering was getting ready to open a bar on Thames Street some 15 years ago, but he couldn't decide on a name. Then his 5-year-old son suggested they call it John Steven, after his teddy bear. Doering liked the idea, and the rest is Fells Point history.
John Steven Ltd. is one of the area's most popular bars, but it isn't known for its food because it's never served much. Seafood steamed at the bar was about the extent of it until a neighbor of Doering's, Ed Heinz, arrived at the tavern one snowy day. He had made sushi for a party, but his guests had canceled because of the weather. Obviously his sushi wouldn't keep. Could he give it away to Doering's customers?
The sushi was so popular that Heinz suggested they create a sushi bar in one corner of the tavern -- just for a couple of months. Why not? said Doering, and what John Stevens' owner now calls "probably the busiest sushi bar in Baltimore" opened soon after. Heinz, who learned how to make sushi from a cookbook, is still there eight or nine years later -- with several assistants to help him create what are billed as Original Ed's American Sushi Rolls.
Charles Doering wasn't satisfied with serving just sushi and steamed shrimp, mussels and clams, so last summer he expanded and opened a patio dining room in back of the tavern, with black wrought-iron furniture and a roll-down tent covering. The tent can be heated; it was open through the winter as well. "It can be used for all but the coldest and windiest days," he says, "Although last winter was no test because it was so mild."
There's also a small indoor dining room in back of the tavern with a few tables for the overflow from the patio -- but it fills up only after every table is taken outdoors. The room is pleasant in a Fells Point-funky way: The row houses in this neighborhood all have a sense of history, which comes through despite off-beat decorating touches like the Moulin Rouge poster next to a case of African sculptures. With a breeze blowing through the open windows and the little candles on the tables, the dining room is every bit as nice a place to eat as the patio.
Indoors or out, you can get sushi and steamed seafood like the eight jumbo shrimp ( 1/2 pound for $8.50) we had. They're cooked perfectly -- huge, still firm, spicy and too hot to peel immediately.
There's a hamburger, of course -- the Shakespeare burger for $5.25. ("As You Like It." Get it?) You choose the kind of cheese you want on the good, thick burger. It comes with slender, hand-cut french fries.
Doering was planning to introduce a number of salads this summer, such as seafood and mango salad and a "blackened bit" salad with pieces of Cajun-style fish on greens. Even something as simple as the garden salad ($3) is a bit beyond the ordinary. Arranged prettily on a bed of romaine are chopped red and yellow pepper, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, red onions, cucumber, grated carrot and sprouts. All dressings are house-made except for the honey mustard; we had a full-bodied vinaigrette with ours.
Then there are dishes like baked brie with pine nuts ($6.75) that are billed as appetizers but are really a light meal -- or a first course for several people. The wedge of warm, softly melting cheese is huge, surrounded by semicircles of apple and pear slices, plus blueberries and grapes.
At dinnertime, this is basically a seafood restaurant, with a limited ongoing menu and a number of specials each day. A mixed grill of tuna, mahi mahi and salmon ($13.95) offered the perfect amount of each fish -- not too much -- beautifully fresh and nicely charred. Alas, they had simply been grilled too long. A special that night was two plump soft shell crabs ($13.95) with just a smidgen of a light, crisp batter. They couldn't have been better.
Dinners came with tiny red-skinned potatoes and the vegetable of the day. By the time we got our dinners, the promised fresh asparagus had turned into indifferently sauteed green beans.
Desserts are created in the tavern's kitchen. That evening there were two choices; we tried them both. A sticky-rich, appealing pecan pie would have been even better if it had been served warm rather than ice cold. An old-fashioned peach and blueberry cobbler on a thick, short crust didn't have the same pizazz and would have been better warm, too.
The food that comes out of John Steven Ltd.'s kitchen is interesting and well-conceived; but it needs a little more quality control. Maryland crab soup ($2.95) had nice lumps of crab but was overseasoned. The cocktail sauce with the shrimp contained so much horseradish it made us weep. And the otherwise excellent french fries were grievously oversalted.
Next: Bombay Peacock Grill