It's Got No Atmosphere, But Mo's Knows Seafood

DINING OUT

December 12, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory, 502 Albemarle St., (410) 837-1600. Major credit cards. Open every day for lunch and dinner. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$12.95; entrees, $6.95-$29.95. Let's say you want to open a restaurant downtown. You look around and you realize that the restaurants in the Inner Harbor are doing a good business, what with Harborplace and the tourist trade. People having dinner around a harbor, you decide, want to eat seafood. But, you notice, restaurants in Little Italy are doing an even better business serving up hefty portions of pasta. So you put your new place on the edge of Little Italy. And what do you call it?

Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory, of course.

That must have been how it happened, but I'm not going to begin to try to figure out why anyone would call his restaurant a factory, with all the negatives that implies. And I don't quite see the logic of providing direct competition for yourself only a few blocks away. (Mo's Fisherman's Wharf is located at 219 President St.) But obviously the owner, Mo Manocheh, knows more about restaurant economics than I do, since I don't own five successful eating places and two seafood markets and he does.

Judging from his Crab and Pasta Factory, the only one of his restaurants I've been to, the reason behind his success is quite ++ simple. His restaurants provide enormous portions of very fresh seafood. (It helps having your own markets.)

What's lacking at Mr. Manocheh's newest venture is atmosphere. Particularly when your closest competitors are Little Italy restaurants, you need all the homeyness and coziness you can get. Instead these are rather spare, generic dining rooms, a little too big to be comfortable. (Although to be fair, they seem fresh and new; and there is a good view out the big windows of the second-story dining room.)

Mo's promises steamed crabs all year-round. For those interested in the Little Italy experience, there are also hard crabs marinara and "Mo's Garlic Crabs," steamed with garlic sauce and served with Italian bread for dunking. The evening we were there, though, the hard crab shipment hadn't come in, so we didn't get to see what it was like to pick a crab covered in tomato sauce.

That doesn't mean there was a shortage of crab meat. Take the "Cold Seafood Combo for Two," which is piled high with backfin and crab legs. If it were my kitchen, I wouldn't serve three shrimp, three oysters and three clams on a plate for two, but logistics aside, it was pretty good. The oysters were fresh and briny-sweet, the shrimp were large and fresh and there was more crab meat than we could eat. On the downside, the crab legs were tasteless and the clams tasted bitter.

We also had garlic mussels, plump and totally grit-free, with a fine, garlicky sauce, which would have been even better if it hadn't been thickened. A large bowl of cream of crab soup was silky, nicely seasoned, deadly rich and full of crab flakes.

It was a mistake to follow it with a special of the day, salmon Jelal. This was a huge plate filled with a poached salmon fillet topped with lobster meat, shrimp and crab meat, with pasta shells beside them. Everything was swimming in a silky, nicely seasoned, deadly rich lobster sauce -- cups of it. It was too much. Overkill. Like eating a second bowl of cream soup.

A grease-free fried seafood combo was mammoth, with big shrimp, fat scallops and a huge crab cake. Good for those times when you want fried seafood, except that the crab cake was made with much too much mayonnaise.

Mo's lengthy menu has dozens of seafood dishes on the front side. Flip it over and you'll find more pastas than many Little Italy restaurants offer. Alas, Mo's knows seafood but not pasta. Cheese tortellini were tough and covered in a heavy, somewhat bitter tomato sauce. Only the good shrimp saved the dish.

Side dishes are sometimes an afterthought at seafood restaurants, but not here. Dinners come with good mixed vegetables, fresh, steamed and buttery. The huge salads are pretty good, too, with a variety of greens and homemade dressings. The bread, though . . . if the kitchen wants to compete with Little Italy, it better come up with better bread.

Of course, Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory -- located where it is -- has the obligatory cannoli. Other desserts include ruinously rich cheesecakes with names like crunchy monkey (bananas and chocolate chips) and even richer pecan pie. Or you can follow your steamed crabs with a cappuccino. Now there's the best of both worlds.

Next: Peabody's

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