Raw oysters and smoked bluefish are an easy choice in Annapolis

May 06, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

Briny Chesapeake oysters have been a culinary draw at Maryland restaurants for ages. One would think they'd be the highlight of a meal at O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Grill in Annapolis, considering its name.

On a recent weeknight, we put that theory to a test. We sat down for a meal at O'Brien's and ordered oysters three ways.

The first to arrive were icy-cold raw oysters on the half-shell. They were exactly what we hoped for -- fresh, plump and beautiful. But the baked oysters Rockefeller were hindered by a dense cap of spinach, and the fried oysters were overcooked. Our conclusion: Oysters may not be the best bet at this oyster bar, except in their simplest preparation.

O'Brien's looks like the quintessential Annapolis tavern, with a busy bar up front decorated with sports photos. The adjacent dining room is done in deep green with accents of brass, leaded glass and dark wood. The decor rides the line between classic and comfortable, with flickering candles and cloth napkin fans, as well as mounted televisions and vinyl tablecloths.

Jerry Hardesty, who bought O'Brien's from the previous owners in 1993, brings in musicians for live music every night starting at 9:30 or 10. That might be the best time to visit O'Brien's, for a pint of Newcastle ale and some first-rate smoked bluefish.

What makes this bluefish special is its moist, delicate texture, wrapped in a crust of cracked peppercorns. Slices of the smoked fish were served on a platter of lettuce greens, adorned with chopped egg, capers, red onion, crackers and rounds of toasted bread. Be sure to ask for some horseradish cream sauce, if yours is forgotten as ours was. (Our young waitress was pleasant, but not quite on top of things.)

Another good choice is the white bean chili, made with a rich chicken stock, cannellini beans and melted Cheddar cheese. It had a smooth, thick texture, great flavor and subtle heat, the kind that creeps up on you. Pass on the other chili variations at O'Brien's, though. One was just like black bean soup. The other, a traditional beef and kidney bean, was overly seasoned with cumin and had an odd note of sweetness.

The citrus vinaigrette on our spinach salad also was sweet, but we liked the way it married with sliced grilled tuna, still a lovely pink at its core. The tuna was perched on top of the salad -- a tower of spinach, untrimmed leaves of romaine, sliced mushrooms and red onions. Our only real problem with the salad was its size. Piled so high, it threatened to topple over onto the table.

There are entrees more upscale at O'Brien's, from filet mignon to chicken Oscar with crab, asparagus and hollandaise. We tried a "surf and surf" special, which was a combination of a crab cake and fried oysters. Wrapped in a thick, crunchy breading, those oysters lost their moist texture in the deep-fry. My friends liked the crab cake, but there were few lumps and more seasoning than I prefer.

The same crab mixture is used to make crab balls, which look like mini crab cakes. They turned up on an appetizer sampler platter, along with those unfortunate oysters Rockefeller, greasy clams casino with an unusual topping of melted cheese, and crab dip that tasted more of cream cheese than of crab. Stick to the smoked bluefish.

No warnings are needed about dessert, so ask your server to wheel over the cart. Brought in fresh, the Boston cream pie wrapped in a dark chocolate ganache, the airy lemon sponge cake and the chocolate turtle cake with a ribbon of caramel were all delightful.

O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Grill

113 Main St., Annapolis.

410-268-6288

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; breakfast on weekends

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$8.95; entrees, $4.95-$19.95

Food: **1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere:**1/2

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

Pub Date: 05/06/99

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