New Chef Turns Out Old Favorites, Fancy Fare

DINING OUT

April 16, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Ocean Pride, 1534 York Road, Lutherville, (410) 321-7744. Open for lunch and dinner every day. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $1.95-$9.25; entrees, $6.50-$21. **1/2

The times they are a-changing when a good old-fashioned seafood place like Ocean Pride is thinking about revamping its menu to reflect its customers' changing attitudes.

Nothing is happening very quickly. This is still the place to go for fried oysters and steamed crabs. What you'll notice is that while the menu is still the same, the list of daily specials is more imaginative than it used to be.

Ocean Pride has a new chef, Steve Foell. (New as of a few months ago.) He's coming up with specials like Caesar salad topped with smoked salmon and sauteed redfish stuffed with crab meat in a light garlic butter sauce. The vegetable of the day is likely to be fresh broccoli.

But, hey, who can resist those fried onion rings, heart-healthy or not? The kitchen coats rings of sweet onion thickly with batter; they come to the table freshly fried, hot and deliciously greasy.

Ocean Pride looks like a place more conducive to enjoying onion rings than Caesar salad with smoked salmon. You can sit at the noisy and popular bar and make a meal of raw oysters and steamers, or you can eat in the low-ceilinged dining room with its bright paisley and teal decor and cheerful gas fireplace. The tables are bare except for paper place mats.

Some restaurants are so comfortable with themselves and their customers that you sense it with every member of the staff -- in our case, from the attentive but not pushy waitress to the busboy who brought the keys I'd forgotten all the way out to our car. Such a restaurant is Ocean Pride.

Not that it doesn't have its faults. The broiled seafood combination, for instance, was positively skimpy. I know fresh seafood is expensive these days, but my guess is that customers would be willing to pay a bit more to get a bit more. The combination consisted of a thin fillet of flounder, two medium shrimp, two small scallops, a little piece of lobster and a mushroom cap stuffed with crab meat. They looked lost on their large platter.

While I'm complaining, cream of crab soup had a wonderful flavor and nice lumps of crab, but it was thick as gravy. And the oysters on the half shell weren't chilled enough.

But they were prime oysters, plump and briny-sweet. And the clams casino were just about perfect: tender clams, a curl of bacon, melted butter -- and nothing much else to disguise the good flavor of the clams.

I'm grateful to Ocean Pride for using real butter. You can taste the difference with your seafood. And a rather ordinary loaf of white bread becomes extraordinary when the kitchen brushes it with butter and heats it until it has a crisp, shiny crust. (The restaurant doesn't charge for the bread, but you do have to ask for it.)

We had to try at least one of the new chef's specials. This was a fresh swordfish steak, grilled just long enough and napped with an orange-ginger sauce that was a bit sweet for my taste but still very appealing.

I thought I was splurging by getting another special that evening, the whole stuffed lobster. But the kitchen must have been trying to save me money. I got instead a stuffed lobster tail, baked with parsley-flecked lump crab meat on top and a bit of rich imperial sauce. (It was more than enough to eat, so I didn't complain.)

Ocean Pride specializes in various salads made on the premises. We had a good, gloppy red-skinned potato salad and fresh-tasting coleslaw with a nice balance of sweet and sour flavors. Such old-fashioned choices were actually better than the fresh broccoli, which had been cooked to within an inch of its life.

Traditionally, if Baltimore crab houses have even one dessert, they have cheesecake. (It always used to be Mrs. Pose's, remember?) Ocean Pride did indeed have cheesecake; and it was a staggeringly good cheesecake, so seductively creamy and rich it ought to have been X-rated.

Our other choices were the rice pudding made on the premises (which could have used a few raisins) or a fat chocolate eclair supplied by a bakery.

Ocean Pride is one of those restaurants you might overlook if you don't know about it. For a long time, driving by on York Road, I thought it was a seafood market. I've never seen a restaurant disguise itself as well. But those in the know line up for the crabs once the local season starts, so this is the time of year to go if you're looking for a casual and moderately priced neighborhood seafood restaurant and don't want to wait for a table.

Hard shells are available all year-round at Ocean Pride, but call first. On any given day, Ocean Pride knows by 4 p.m. or so whether crabs will be available. They're shipped in from Louisiana until local ones are big enough to eat. Not surprisingly, the supply is erratic, depending on the weather and such. And, of course, they cost an arm and a leg.

' Next: The Wild Mushroom

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