Classic Seafood And Spanish Fare With Flair

DINING OUT

March 20, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

The Fishery, 1717 Eastern Ave., (410) 327-9340. Open for lunch and dinner every day. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$12.50; entrees, $9.95-$23.95. ***

It's the sort of situation that makes a restaurant critic wary. A guy comes to your door and, when your husband answers it, asks, "Do you and your wife ever eat out?"

"Sometimes," my husband mumbles, sure that this is an irate restaurant owner who has finally tracked us down.

But, no, it turns out the guy is going door to door as part of a promotion for the Fishery -- giving away a free something or other if you visit the restaurant.

I wasn't even sure where the Fishery was. But when I looked it up in the phone book, I realized what I had once known and forgotten: that this was the restaurant in Fells Point that used to be the Spanish Meson.

The Spanish Meson opened at the height of Baltimore's love affair with Tio Pepe, but unfortunately for it, a couple of other Spanish restaurants jumped on the bandwagon at the same time. The owners finally decided that what Baltimore needed more than four Spanish restaurants was one great seafood restaurant, and they set out to make their place, now renamed the Fishery, it.

Ironically, our waiter told us that because the other Tio Pepe wannabes have since closed, the owners are now planning to add more Spanish dishes to the current very fishy menu.

Fishy is exactly what it is, with more than 20 different kinds of seafood, including sea trout, mahi-mahi, black sea bass, white sea bass, shark and snapper as well as all the more usual fish and shellfish like flounder, shrimp and crab. Non-seafood eaters will also find plenty to choose from: beef, chicken and veal are on the menu, along with a vegetarian special every night.

Keeping in mind that by the time this gets into print the Fishery may well be emphasizing its Spanish food again, one of us ordered black bean soup and paella pescador, while another had shrimp in garlic sauce followed by sole baked with bananas and hollandaise. (That last may not sound Spanish, but it's a Tio Pepe classic and no Spanish restaurant opens in Baltimore without serving a version of it.)

One of us tried a special that evening, swordfish New Orleans, preceded by the "Fishery's Steamed Combination." Another had classic Eastern Shore seafood dinner, oysters on the half shell and shrimp stuffed with crab imperial.

On a Sunday night just at the end of the winter's worst weather, I was impressed by how many different kinds of seafood were available and how fresh everything was. The raw oysters weren't huge, but they were ice-cold, plump and sweet. Oysters made an appearance again on the Steamed Combination plate, which also had clams, tender in spite of being steamed, grit-free mussels and fat, fiery-hot shrimp. If you like your shrimp Iberian-style, order them in a casserole with the dark, powerfully garlicky sauce that's irresistible with bread for dunking.

Among the Fishery's other ethnic dishes is a savory black bean soup with plenty of texture, full-bodied and rich but light enough to precede the Fishery's impressive seafood paella. Here was a whole lobster, meaty and juicy, surrounded by mussels, clams, scallops, chunks of swordfish and shrimp on a bed of golden saffron rice with bright green peas.

Although the paella hardly constitutes peasant fare, the sole with bananas and hollandaise is undeniably elegant. The charm of this dish is that the flavors and textures melt together into one creamy soft, incredibly rich, buttery mass -- slightly lemony, with a touch of sweetness from the banana.

It's not exactly diet food.

Almost as rich are the shrimp baked with crab imperial. The Fishery uses big shrimp and manages not to overcook them; the crab imperial contains large lumps of back fin, lots of rich sauce with a seasoning that tastes faintly and pleasantly Spanish.

If you're interested in a seafood dish that doesn't rely quite so much on butter and egg yolks but still has plenty of pizazz, try the swordfish New Orleans. We must have gotten three-quarters of a pound of fish, with julienne vegetables on top and a slightly spicy beurre blanc sauce. Yes, it's butter, just not as much butter.

Go-withs aren't exciting; but the french fries are hand-cut, salads are decent and the broccoli is fresh and not overcooked.

If you have room for anything more, the waiter rolls out a pastry cart of fudgy cakes, rum-soaked concoctions and white chocolate seductions; but the best dessert came from the kitchen, a modest, deliciously creamy flan.

All in all, a satisfying meal with good service. But the setting isn't what you'd expect in a seafood restaurant. It's pleasant enough, but this is so clearly a Mediterranean restaurant with its white stucco and wrought iron that you're surprised to find crab cakes on the menu. It looks like it ought to be named the Spanish Meson. According to our waiter, though, most of the Fishery's customers come from the hotels around the harbor; and tourists come to port cities like Baltimore for seafood, not so much for ethnic fare.

Odd how the Fishery seems better known outside the area than by the natives. Hanging on the wall is a travel story from the New York Times; the Fishery is one of the few Baltimore restaurants recommended. And I hadn't even remembered where it was.

Next: Matsuri

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