Atlantis shows promise, tough clams aside

Restaurant: It's hard to get enraged at Atlantis Seafood despite the many flaws in the food -- like those clams.

Sunday Gourmet

April 09, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I like to think I'm as adventuresome about my food as the next person. But I draw the line at someone decorating a plate of oysters, crab, shrimp, spinach and bearnaise with chocolate syrup squiggles.

The chef at the new Atlantis Seafood restaurant and grill in Columbia has no such qualms. Nor does he hesitate to overcook tuna and lobster. Or add so much thickening to cream of crab soup that it has the consistency of library paste.

And yet, it's hard to get enraged at this pleasant little restaurant. I've had some really terrible food in my time -- fish that's gone off, dishes filled with ersatz ingredients. Food so oversalted you couldn't eat it. That's not what I'm talking about here.

And we couldn't complain about the service. Our waitress was cheerful, attentive and got the food on the table with all due speed.

The casual setting is pleasant enough. It has a bit more red and royal blue and blond wood than you usually get in a seafood restaurant, but there are the expected nautical appointments, a baroque fountain and a very fine glass-enclosed dessert case.

Still, I minded that when I asked for the wine list, as my menu instructed me to, our waitress pulled out a folded piece of note paper from her pocket, consulted it and said, "Do you want red or white?" (This restaurant has been open for two months, time enough to print up a wine list or at least have more than a few choices.)

OK, so wine isn't their thing. I can accept that. But seafood is their thing, and I can't understand why they would serve clams that were so tough we literally couldn't chew them.

You'll do best to keep things simple -- the handsome shrimp cocktail is a good example. And the fat crab cake appetizer was decent enough, although it wasn't made with lump crab meat.

But let the kitchen have its way, and you'll find yourself faced with a dish like the evening's special, the overcooked-to-the-point-of-dryness tuna New Orleans with scallops, shrimp and a lake of spicy Cajun sauce. Or another special: a whole lobster, a bit waterlogged, stuffed with a pedestrian crab imperial. The lobster was surrounded with spicy steamed shrimp still in their shell, which were actually the best part of the dish.

None of our meal was bad, mind you. (OK, clams the texture of shoe leather could be called bad.) But it was indifferently prepared and more complicated than it needed to be. On the other hand, fried catfish was pretty simple, yet its breading was a thick crust, much heavier than it needed to be.

But then the kitchen can turn out perfectly cooked fresh asparagus in a buttery sauce, and the house salad's raspberry vinaigrette was fragrant with fresh raspberries. So it's hard to generalize.

Desserts look quite tempting in their display case, but the ones we tried -- cheesecake, a chocolate cake, Key lime pie and banana cream pie -- weren't worth the calories.

Atlantis is one of those restaurants you'd like to see make it. Good concept (seafood is always a good concept); reasonable prices; good and cheerful service. If the kitchen could just get its act together, this would be a place worth knowing about. It isn't there yet.

Atlantis Seafood

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: Harper's Choice Village Center, 5485 Harpers Farm Road, Columbia

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $4.95-$14.95; main courses: $9.95-$27.95.

Call: 410-772-8788

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