Chart House, 601 E. Pratt St., (410) 539-6616. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $4.95-
$8.95; entrees, $14.95-$32.95. *1/2
Every year just about now the calls start coming in -- people wanting me to recommend a seafood restaurant. Mostly they're tourists, and they not only want to know what Baltimore's best seafood restaurant is, they want it to be at the harbor. They
aren't buying my standard line, that Baltimore doesn't have any one place that stands out above the others but you can get excellent seafood at any good restaurant in the city.
So I'm slowly working my way around the harbor, to see what I can and can't recommend.
The Chart House may well be the most spectacular restaurant at the harbor, with its jutting decks and handsome interior spaces. The converted warehouse, with dining rooms on three levels, is all wood and glass and exposed brick. The colors are muted earth tones, and there are lots of plants. A nautical motif is present (mostly some pictures of ships) but doesn't overwhelm.
Three of the four of us arrived at the same time and asked to be seated while we waited for our fourth. The hostess refused. They were a little short of tables. But we have a reservation, I said. Will there be a table for us when our fourth comes? Absolutely, she promised.
Now think about it. This was a restaurant where we were going to be spending about $40 a person. They were going to have to keep our table free until our fourth arrived anyway. If she never arrived we were still going to eat. So why not be gracious and seat us?
While I'm complaining, I might as well complain about our waitress. A nice woman, but she shouldn't have come back 10 minutes after we had ordered drinks to say they would take a while because a large party had come in. What were we, chopped liver?
And if your motto is "Great food, great service, or it's on us," and you pour hot roast beef juice on your customer's arm and skirt, shouldn't you offer to buy her a drink at least? Or failing that, to pay the cleaning bill?
OK, by now we were a little grumpy, but good food makes up for almost anything. And this food should be good; they aren't giving it away. A bowl of cream of crab soup, for instance, cost $6. It was potentially a lovely soup, light but intensely creamy, with nice lumps of back fin. Unfortunately it was almost room temperature when it arrived, in spite of being covered.
I ordered an artichoke. The waitress came back five minutes later to say they were all out of artichokes. I substituted the smoked salmon, the only other first course I remembered on the limited menu that hadn't been taken by anyone else at the table. Somehow I expected something a little more sophisticated than salmon (very good smoked salmon, to be sure) arranged with squares of Cheddar cheese and crackers.
No one could have any complaints about the Chart House's shrimp cocktail. The shrimp were huge and flavorful, and their sauce had plenty of zing. The oysters Rockefeller, however, were overcooked, so much so that the oysters themselves were a bit shriveled up. The well-seasoned spinach couldn't salvage the dish, especially when my friend came across one oyster that was out-and-out bad. Gone south, as he so elegantly put it.
The Chart House is known for its combinations, the waitress told us -- a crab cake or shrimp and a steak, for instance. Ask how much the one you want is before you order it: I was surprised to find that one crab cake (with good back fin but too much in the way of crumbs, and overbaked) and a small piece of top sirloin (mealy in texture and with very little flavor) ended up costing us $26.
Prime rib is a house specialty, and it should be. It was as full of robust, meaty flavor as the top sirloin wasn't. The portion was huge, and cut like butter. Of course, the person who ordered it had to put up with its juice in her lap.
I had a small lobster, stunningly arranged so it looked like a painting: the bright red and white curves of the shellfish, the yellow lemon, all set off against the white plate with the green of chopped parsley. Too bad the lobster itself was overcooked to dryness.
Too bad the grilled swordfish was overcooked. Even the good, garlicky aioli couldn't salvage the dry flesh.
The only part of our meal I can't complain about is the salads -- Caesar or garden, your choice and both good. I'm sorry, I don't understand why if you want a baked potato instead of rice pilaf with your meal it has to cost 95 cents extra.
The only dessert made on the premises is the Chart House's mud pie, literally a foot high slice of coffee ice cream pie with chocolate, whipped cream and nuts. It's one of those desserts created to amaze you. I preferred the Key lime pie, made on the premises or not, with its luscious sour-sweetness, delicate crust and softly whipped cream.
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