Many Things Going For It . . . But Not Yet The Food

DINING OUT

April 02, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Pier 500, 500 HarborView Drive, (410) 625-0500. Open every day for lunch and dinner, Sundays for brunch. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$7.50; entrees, $13.95-$24.95. ** 1/2

A critic could have a full-time career reviewing Pier 500, the handsome restaurant at the HarborView Marina. Every time you turn around it has a new concept, a new menu or a new chef. Or all three.

To say that Pier 500 has had trouble finding its niche is to put it mildly. The restaurant has had more than its share of chefs guiding its kitchen -- Connie Crabtree and Brian Boston, to mention two well-known ones. It's had seafood menus and new American cuisine menus and Southwestern menus. (To give you an idea of how quickly these changes have happened: In between the time I went to review the new Southwestern menu and the time the photographer went to take the photo, the chef who had created it left. That's why you never read my review of the Southwestern food.)

Let's say you have a waterfront restaurant named Pier 500. It's located just a few blocks away from most of the downtown hotels, filled with tourists who want to eat seafood. It's in a city filled with people who want to eat seafood. So you serve Southwestern food?

Does that make sense?

Apparently the owners have decided it doesn't. In its latest incarnation, Pier 500 is once again a seafood restaurant, with prices a bit lower than I remember them. They've hired a new executive chef, Bernard Pfanner, formerly of Danny's.

What they haven't changed is the looks of the place, which is fine with me. It's still one of the most visually stunning dining rooms around the Inner Harbor, mainly because every table has a great view of the water. The bold colors of tropical murals against deep green walls give the room warmth even in the dead of winter. The lighting, low and romantic, comes mostly from flickering candles on each table. The tables are set with dusty rose over white tablecloths, handsome silverware and fresh flowers.

L The service is gracious and professional, not at all stuffy.

With so much going for it, why isn't Pier 500 busier, even on a midweek evening? The right concept at the right prices, elegant surroundings, attentive service -- what's not to like?

How about flounder stuffed with crab imperial, a dish most restaurants have managed to produce an acceptable version of in the 20-some years I've been eating out in Baltimore? This was the first time the fish had been so overcooked the edges were actually crunchy.

Or, if you've ordered something a little more unusual, sesame salmon over julienned vegetables. The thick salmon fillet was so heavily coated with black and white sesame seeds you could hardly taste the fish; and the sauce was remarkably thick, not the delicate ginger beurre blanc we expected.

You'd at least think the kitchen could get the green beans right, not cook them until they were gray.

Speaking of overcooking: The seared duck breast in the Oriental duck salad shouldn't have been cooked to well-done. And its raspberry vinaigrette tasted as if it had been made with raspberry jam.

Oysters Bernard worked only if you weren't very interested in the oysters. They were lost under a blanket of minced mushrooms and shallots, bechamel and melted Swiss cheese. This dish, if I remember correctly, was a specialty of Danny's, Baltimore's premier restaurant in its heyday. Those oysters were bigger, though, able to stand up to such elaborate treatment.

But just when you might despair of getting a decent meal out of Pier 500's kitchen, you find yourself enjoying large, perfectly cooked steamed shrimp, intriguingly garnished with seaweed.

You sigh with delight over the whole steamed lobster, so handsomely dismembered you hardly need a napkin, let alone a bib, to eat the juicy meat dripping with melted butter. Its garnish of plump mussels is almost as good (even if they should have been more carefully rinsed).

Perhaps the kitchen does best with simple food? No, nothing was wrong with the tournedos Atlantis, what you might call surf and surf and surf and turf. The three thin medallions of beef were juicy, flavorful and tender. One was topped with seared scallops, one with some pretty lumps of back fin, the third with curls of shrimp. The trio was tied together with a subtle dill cream.

A cream of asparagus soup, the soup of the day, was at the same time delicate and gloriously rich with chunks of perfectly cooked fresh asparagus.

So how do you make any generalizations about a meal like this? I suppose you say that Pier 500 seems to be on the right track but isn't there yet: seafood, yes. Smooth service, yes. Good food, sometimes.

Ah well, one generalization I can make with confidence: If you want dessert, you had better like chocolate.

Desserts are from Renaissance Pastries, and they all seem to be heavily chocolate except for a tiramisu cake. (If you're expecting classic tiramisu, the cake's relative dryness and lightness will seem like flaws. I kind of liked it.) Otherwise it's cheesecake with chocolate and chocolate truffle cake with chocolate, and a rum bombe with chocolate cake and chocolate mousse filling. All with a little chocolate sauce on the side if you haven't had enough.

Next: Restaurant 2110

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