Sometimes the new lives up to the old Restaurant: But in the case of the reopened O'Learys in Annapolis, it costs more.

October 04, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

I was glad to hear that O'Learys had reopened last spring after being closed for several months. It was and is a small, pleasant seafood restaurant with a view of the water. What more could you want when you eat out in Maryland's historic port city?

Well, you might want lower prices. When I reported the reopening last March, the new owners, Paul Meyer and Charles Bauer, planned to keep entrees under $20. That didn't happen, and you can expect to spend lavishly here. But if that isn't a problem, you should have a very good time.

O'Learys' weathered beach-cottage exterior is deceptive. Inside are the two impeccably done-up dining rooms, elegant in fall colors of ocher and deep red with framed black-and-white photos on the walls. Expanses of windows look out over the marina. Although there's nothing stuffy about these rooms, there is a certain formality because of the fresh white linen, sparkling glasses and heavy flatware.

The new owners bill O'Learys as the city's only seafood-only restaurant on the water. That's not quite true - there is one steak and one chicken dish on the menu - but it's close enough. The menu is small enough to be manageable, but has something to appeal to most tastes (as long as you want seafood).

The traditionalist should be happy with crab cakes or stuffed rockfish. For the more adventuresome, tandoori salmon and less-known fish like opah, wahoo and golden tilefish are featured - mesquite grilled with roasted corn salsa, perhaps, or sauteed with lemon beurre blanc and pine nuts. All the dishes we tried were done with flair, and missteps were forgiven because of the quality of the seafood.

What do I mean by missteps? The tandoori salmon's cucumber yogurt sauce turned out to be chopped cucumbers on the side with a tasteless yogurt dressing. The salmon, with its gently spicy coating of turmeric and cumin, could have used a bit of sauce; but it was so moist and fresh I couldn't really complain.

O'Learys' bouillabaisse is a "lite" version, although it isn't billed that way - more broth with fresh vegetables than stew. It just wasn't as deeply flavorful as we expected it to be. But the generous pieces of lobster and red snapper, the fresh clams, scallops, mussels and shrimp made up for any deficiencies in the broth.

O'Learys has excellent fried calamari, and you have to applaud the fact that instead of the usual cocktail sauce, it's served with something different: bagna cauda, an Italian sauce of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies. Bagna cauda is a great dip for raw vegetables, but for fried calamari? Pretty greasy.

The rest of our meal was just about flawless. I loved the thick, firm, white fillet of halibut with a gremolata (parsley, lemon peel and garlic) crust that sealed in the fish's moistness. And while some might feel that stuffing soft-shell crabs with crab meat, sauteing them in a Mexican-seasoned crust, and garnishing them with plantains is a bit over the top - well, I enjoyed every bite.

As for our first courses, baked oysters O'Learys are a must-have. The oysters were fat and fresh, the spinach a lovely green, the sauce a fragile concoction of cream and Gruyere cheese. Lobster bisque was flavorful and creamy, with succulent lumps of the shellfish. Huge barbecued shrimp, which lay on a smoky-sweet sauce, came with a wonderful slaw made of red and green cabbage and fresh pineapple.

Two of the desserts were made in-house; we skipped the others and concentrated on them. One was a fine sweet biscuit shortcake filled with plump blackberries, strawberries and peaches and lavished with freshly whipped cream. Just as good was the tart Key lime pie, with an elegant little crumb crust and a cloud of whipped cream.

The new O'Learys is every bit as good as the old O'Learys. In fact, our meal was better than the one I had had four years before. It's too bad the new owners weren't able to keep the prices down a bit, but for expense-account dinners and special occasions, O'Learys is a good restaurant to keep in mind.

O'Learys

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Where: 310 Third St., Annapolis

Hours: Open for dinner every evening.

Prices: Appetizers: $6.95-$10.95; main courses: $14.95-$36.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-263-0884

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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