There May Be A New Chef, But Casual Chic Remains

DINING OUT

December 06, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Pier 500, 500 Harborview Drive, (410) 625-0500. Open every day for lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair access: yes.

Since it opened, Pier 500 has been a restaurant known for its casual chic. The food has always been a bit erratic but wonderfully imaginative; unfortunately, you never knew whether you were going to get a meal that would completely wow you or one that mildly disappointed.

The problem Pier 500 faces in this economy is that people are no longer so willing to pay heavily for casual chic and imaginative but erratic food. If they're going to lay out $20 for a main course, it's likely to be a dress-up sort of occasion. They want formal service and can't-go-wrong food. Maybe prime rib. You can't go wrong with prime rib.

Pier 500 is still as casual and as chic as it ever was, with its deegreen walls, its colorful and primitive tropical murals, its wall of glass overlooking the harbor, its contemporary appointments. This is a white-tablecloth-and-crystal restaurant, but one where you can get away with wearing jeans. If they're the right sort of jeans.

If you haven't eaten there recently, though, you'll find that there's been one significant change. In September, Brian Boston -- whose earlier kitchens included those at Chestnut Ridge Country Club and the Brass Elephant -- took over from executive chef Connie Crabtree. And it's not a matter of his continuing in her footsteps. He's introduced a menu that seems very different except that it, too, is for the most part expensive and it, too, offers dishes that you won't find elsewhere. Although main courses are priced around $20, there are a couple of hamburgers and a Cobb salad offered at dinner time for under $10. So it's not impossible to eat at Pier 500 for a moderate cost.

It's a thoughtful menu, limited in the number of disheattempted, emphasizing grilled food and offering plenty of choice for those with diet restrictions. For instance, you'll find a little heart symbol (meaning low in fat and sodium) by a first course of tuna carpaccio ($5.75). It featured the freshest of fresh tuna cut in thin (but not quite thin enough) slices. The tuna was accompanied by a slice or two of grilled eggplant and endive and topped with a spoonful of pesto. The combination was elegant, but I didn't like the way the tuna slices were piled in a little ball rather than laid neatly on the plate.

Another heart-healthy starter might be fat portabella mushrooms marinated in vinaigrette and topped with crab and tomato, an unusual combination of tastes and textures that didn't quite work. My favorite first course was a marvelously caloric smoked potato and roasted red pepper soup ($2.75). It had lots of cream but was surprisingly delicate, so the good flavors of the vegetables came through.

You could start with a salad -- a mixed green with julienne vegetables and walnuts ($4.75), perhaps, or Euro mix with raspberries and pine nuts ($6.50). We tried them both and liked ** everything about them except the dressing. It was the same, although one was supposed to be walnut and raspberry vinaigrette and the other creamy raspberry herb vinaigrette. Whatever it was, it was a little too raspberry-jam sweet for my taste.

The new chef's signature dish, according to our waiter, is Maryland shellfish bouillabaisse ($22.95). Don't expect a traditional bouillabaisse. It's a handsome combination of clams, mussels, salmon, shrimp and scallops in an ethereally light cream-and-lobster bisque -- glorious in the shallow red-rimmed bowl.

If you're watching your diet, you could try a "heart healthy," fierybut ultimately uninteresting dish of lomein noodles with chicken and vegetables in a Sichuan sauce ($12.75). A perfectly grilled boneless breast of chicken ($13.75) was a better bet, even though its tomato-basil coulis did taste suspiciously like marinara sauce. And it seemed pretty healthful to me, despite the lack of a heart symbol.

Pier 500 now offers an individual rack of lamb ($23.50). The babchops were grilled to juicy-rare perfection, then sauced with a full-bodied demi-glace fragrant with sprigs of rosemary. It came with a bit of tender garlic-flavored egg custard, puffs of potato croquettes and baby carrots and green beans.

The restaurant has a solid wine list, but there's not a great deaof choice in the moderate range. Each dish on the list of the day's specials is accompanied by a suggested wine, and Pier 500 offers a good selection of wines by the glass.

Through our main courses, the service had been spectacular. For dessert we waited. And even though the chocolate pate ($3.75) was delicious and gorgeously decorated, even though the chocolate bourbon cake ($3.75) was wonderfully heavy and the cheesecake ($2.75) wonderfully light, they weren't worth the wait. And our coffee was just lukewarm.

Next: The Sunshine Cafe

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