Captain Harvey's, 11510 Reisterstown Rd., Owings Mills (410) 356-7550. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Appetizers, $4-$11; entrees, $13.75-$38. **1/2
It's a sad commentary on the times when a restaurant has to give an oyster's provenance before people feel safe ordering half a dozen on the half shell.
There it is on Captain Harvey's menu: "PRIME SALT WATER OYSTERS, Talmidge Oyster Company, farm-raised cultured oysters served with fresh ground horseradish, lemon and cocktail sauce. $7.00"
On the other hand, if you are nervous about eating raw shellfish, as I suppose we all should be, it's reassuring. Here are oysters you can feel reasonably comfortable devouring.
And if you think farm-raised oysters aren't as tasty as the wild ones (it's hard to think of oysters as wild, isn't it?), you're wrong. These were small, but we got eight of them, well chilled and briny-sweet.
Captain Harvey's is the granddaddy of special-occasion seafood restaurants in the area. I'm sure it didn't start off that way, back in 1935 when Capt. Harvey Marshall opened a tavern near the Inner Harbor. The restaurant moved out to Owings Mills some 40 years ago, but the Marshall family still owns it and uses many of the original Eastern Shore recipes.
Now, however, Captain Harvey's is definitely for the well-heeled. The price of seafood has made it a luxury. And if you order lobster, which is a very good thing to order at Captain Harvey's, plan to mortgage your house. A baked stuffed lobster tail is $38; and whole lobster, 2 to 4 pounds, were selling for $15 a pound that evening. (Remember the joke about lobsters being protected from their natural enemies by their high cost?)
Ours was perfectly steamed, the succulent meat tender and flavorful. And the presentation was beautiful: It was artfully arranged on the plate with melted butter, sprigs of parsley and a prettily decorated lemon half in yellow netting tied with a green ribbon.
If we'd had only the lobster, the oysters and the house specialty, a first course called "Captain's toast," I would have voted this the best seafood restaurant in Baltimore, maybe the world. The "Captain's toast" is a shell of crusty bread filled with big lumps of crab, sauteed sliced mushrooms and bits of fresh tomato in a suave cream sauce. Dynamite, but try to eat much else afterward.
Unfortunately, we did try other dishes. Cherrystone clams Rockefeller weren't bad, the clams small but flavorful and the spinach appealing. But they were covered with an assertive hollandaise; and if there was any Pernod, I couldn't taste it.
As for our main courses, a "Maryland seafood dinner" luckily featured a lot of seafood because half of it wasn't worth fooling with. Several of the scallops tasted definitely off, with a bitter aftertaste. The shrimp were overcooked and tough. One lone clams casino was so small it looked pitiful in its shell. A flounder fillet was tasteless -- with no sauce or seasonings to liven it up. (There was a dish of sour cream on the side, for some reason, although no one had ordered a baked potato.)
Only the crab cake was every bit as wonderful as we had hoped it would be, with a maximum of back fin and a minimum of filler and seasonings to interfere with the taste of really good crab meat. The platter included an oyster shell filled with crab imperial, which was also good.
The fish of the day was a beautiful, large tuna fillet with a row of shrimp on top. Too bad it was drenched in a butter sauce so garlicky I could taste nothing else. And why decorate the plate with fresh green beans cooked so long they had turned gray?
Our other side dishes were canned stewed tomatoes, cold french fries and good salads.
Desserts are made on the premises. Ours included a warm, moist Jewish apple cake; a tender caramel custard, and lemon meringue pie so tart your mouth puckered up with one bite.
Like many restaurants that have been around forever, Captain Harvey's specializes in motherly waitresses. Ours wasn't quite motherly enough: She never asked if we wanted another iced tea or glass of wine. (Or maybe in a motherly sort of way she thought one glass of wine each was enough for the two of us who were drinking.)
"Which one of you is Elizabeth?" she asked when she returned to the table with my credit card. I would have preferred, "Which one of you is Ms. Large?" (Of course, I don't use my real name on my card, but I'm not telling what my pseudonym is.) Oh, well, she did a good job of getting the food on the table.
As for the setting, give Captain Harvey's credit for looking exactly the way you want a traditional seafood restaurant to look, from the oyster shells embedded in concrete decorating the exterior, to the series of cozy little rooms, to the etched glass dividers, dark wood paneling, brass appointments, comfortable seating and snowy table linen. This is a dining room to put you at ease.
Next: Chester River Inn