Wasted on the harried crowds Restaurant: Tourists rushing through a snack will find fast service at City Lights, but the Harborplace restaurant's well-executed dishes will reward the attention of more leisurely diners.

December 13, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Like youth being wasted on the young, City Lights is wasted on the tourists.

I'm not talking about out-of-town businessmen on expense accounts, but families who come to visit the aquarium or just to stroll around the harbor and stop for a bite to eat.

By necessity (that is, if it wants to pay the rent) City Lights has to be a family restaurant. Every Harborplace restaurant has come to that conclusion, even the brew pubs.

So don't be surprised that there's chocolate milk on the menu as well as a couple of decent sauvignon blancs. Or paper napkins in a restaurant that offers cumin-seared loin of pork with warm lentils, frisee and roasted-apple chutney.

This is not the place to go for a quiet, sophisticated little dinner for two - although the menu and the fine harbor view could lead you to think so. You may have several unruly kids at the table next to yours, as we did.

I'm not sure their harried parents could appreciate City Light's new chef, John Maxwell, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has worked at Red Sage and Gerard's Place in Washington. What they probably did appreciate was that the wait staff gets you in and out remarkably quickly. This is the fastest service I've had in longer than I can remember.

But back to Maxwell. He's created a seasonal menu filled with good things.

Recently he won first place in the Old Bay Crab Soup Stakes for his Maryland crab soup, and you'll see why when you taste the rich, vegetable-filled broth. For garnish it has a whole bright-red crab claw.

If Maxwell entered his crab cakes in a seafood contest they'd probably win as well. They have the perfect balance of sweet lump crab meat, subtle spicing and just enough filler to hold them together. Ours came with crisp strings of fried potatoes gently flavored with Old Bay and piled high over the whole plate. The potatoes taste fine, but they hide the crab cakes and the decorative coleslaw, which is made with two different kinds of cabbage and flavored with coriander.

Salmon can be grilled to your specification. If you don't specify, it will be quite moist and juicy at its center - not rare, but not overcooked either. It has appropriately wintry accompaniments: crisp-edged roast potatoes, a puree of leeks and flavorful mustard greens.

The kitchen smokes its own salmon for a first course, so prettily decorated with a drizzle of horseradish sauce, chopped vegetables and capers you'll hesitate to put a fork to it. But one bite and you won't want to stop.

You could also start with roasted pears accompanied by swirls ** of warm goat cheese and feathery greens. Only a "warm Maryland crab and artichoke gratin" failed to interest us much. Crab and artichoke dip by any other name is still crab and artichoke dip. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a holdover designed to appease the happy-hour crowd.

Although the official name of the place is still City Lights Seafood Restaurant, some of the most intriguing food on the menu isn't seafood at all.

Tender boneless duck breast had a dark, fruity sauce and a swirl of sweet potato and pumpkin puree. Onions cooked with balsamic vinegar worked as its sweet-sour relish.

A fat filet mignon, gently charred and juicy-pink inside, was decorated with several large shrimp and surrounded by a zingy, full-bodied tomato sauce - not too much of it - and portobello mushrooms. Good mashed potatoes added homey comfort.

City Lights has the obligatory death-by-chocolate dessert but this one, unfortunately, was stale. Our other choices were great, though, particularly a creamy, spicy pumpkin cheesecake with pumpkin-seed brittle, and a sponge cake layered with raspberry mousse surrounded by liqueur-sparked raspberry puree.

CITY LIGHTS

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **1/2

Where: Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

ZTC L Prices: Appetizers: $5.95-$8.95, main courses: $14.95-$23.95

Call: 410-244-8811

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

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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