Cheerful Dining Room, Cheerful Staff

Restaurant: South Harbor Tavern may have the winning formula at last - assuming the kitchen will get over the rough spots.

June 13, 1999|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,Sun Restaurant Critic

Sometimes I think I could show up once a year at the spot where the South Harbor Tavern has just opened and find a new restaurant there every time.

I can't figure out why. This location has everything going for it. It's a beautiful space right on the water, an intimate restaurant as opposed to some of the food factories around the harbor. Sure, it's a bit out of the mainstream; but to balance that there's plenty of free parking. The food is always pretty decent, the staff pleasant. But then one day, poof! the restaurant disappears.

This time, though, for the first time, I have hopes for the new restaurant at 500 Harborview Drive. Owner Alex Schleider may have come up with a winning formula: the casual upscaling that sometimes seems to be where every restaurant is going to end up by the turn of the millennium. (Former restaurants like Pier 500 and J. Leonard's Waterside were more haute than hip.)

Serious money has been spent to renovate the space. It's no longer one narrow dining room with a porch, but opened up into a more spacious bar and dining room with plenty of glass, and tables outside on the deck. The look is contemporary without any hard angles, chic but cheerful. The dominant colors are a vaguely nautical deep blue and maroon.

So here we are in this cheerful dining room with an exceptionally cheerful and friendly staff. In fact, our waiter made only two mistakes. First, he brought one of my guests a glass of sauvignon blanc and announced it was the last one. (Hey. We're about to spend a lot of money here. If she orders another one, open a bottle you don't usually serve by the glass.)

Second, he told us the kitchen had run out of the rockfish. When I said lunch must have been busy, he said they hadn't had rockfish for the past two weeks because it was too expensive. Odd. This at a restaurant that throws jumbo lump crab meat and gigantic shrimp around like they were going out of style.

For once, the advice I can give you about ordering is quite simple. The South Harbor Tavern is a tavern, albeit an upscale one. That's Madonna on the sound system, not Mozart. Order accordingly.

Start with one of the best Maryland crab soups I've had, made with fresh-tasting vegetables, a perfectly seasoned broth and lumps of snowy crab meat at its center. Follow it with crab cakes, a winning balance of crab lumps, filling and seasoning. You won't have to mortgage the house to pay for them. And the skinny sweet potato fries that come with them are good, too.

If you feel like meat, the London broil is tender and flavorful, with a winy sauce that's more gravy than sauce but decent. The seasoned mashed potatoes alongside are fine, and there's nothing wrong with the mixed vegetables either. The only problem: The kitchen piles all this on the plate in three big, unappetizing mounds.

A Trifecta kebab is the tavern's version of surf and turf. Shrimp, scallops and chunks of tenderloin with vegetables are grilled and placed on a great bed of rice with no thought of presentation. The seafood pleases the guest who ordered it; but the good meat is completely unseasoned (you expect a marinade here, or at least a little salt).

Penne with marinara sauce works mainly because its seafood is so good: huge shrimp, tender clams in their shells, fat scallops.

So all that's the pretty good news. Problems arise when the kitchen ventures into haute cuisine. As witness the "wild mushroom short stack" appetizer. Small pancakes made with shiitake and portobellos have a balsamic syrup that's as sweet as maple syrup. Ugh.

Fried oysters casino consisted of oysters topped with lumps of crab, wrapped in bacon, breaded and fried, then served with a red pepper aioli. I never got to the red pepper aioli, because the first of the four oysters was off and the bacon still greasily white. When I opened the next oyster up and saw that bacon was also uncooked, I gave up.

A better bet is a traditional shrimp toast that's untraditional in one way: Each triangle is topped with the giant shrimp that are the South Harbor Tavern's stock in trade. Thai noodles on the side were too fiery to eat.

Dessert was as uneven as the rest of the meal. Key lime pie wasn't as zingy with lime as it usually is. Berries and zabaglione were good, but I ordered them because I wanted something light and they came with a great squirting of whipped cream.

It was fun to find a banana split on the menu, but it arrived inexplicably decorated with three baby muffins. And its hot fudge sauce was bittersweet and gummy.

An Oreo chocolate hazelnut cake with strawberry and chocolate sauce did what it set out to do: be incredibly rich. So you can't fault it.

With this uneven a meal, why do I say I think this place will succeed where others have failed? My guess is that the kitchen is going to get its act together. What was good was very good, and prices are reasonable for the food you get. The staff couldn't be more likable, and they got the food out in a timely fashion. And I love what's been done to the space. Right now, stick to the most straightforward stuff, and you'll have a good meal.

SOUTH HARBOR TAVERN

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 500 Harborview Drive

Hours: Open nightly for dinner, lunch on Saturday and Sunday only

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.25; entrees, $10-$18

Call: 410-385-9987

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

Pub Date: 06/13/99

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