It's only a 30-minute ride from our house near Towson to River Watch in Essex, but, as we drove past open fields, marinas and tiny old riverfront cottages, we felt as if we were going on vacation.
We have no idea what River Watch is like when the weather is cold, but it's a fine spot when you can eat outside on the restaurant's big deck under an awning, and watch the boats come and go on Middle River.
The food's good, too. That's not always the case when a restaurant can get by on views alone. Not surprisingly, River Watch's menu abounds with seafood, but there are steaks, burgers, pork chops and even sour beef and dumplings for those who prefer meat. For appetizers, we couldn't resist the seafood, and we ordered lots of it: Maryland crab soup, cream of crab soup, clams casino, steamed clams and mussels, and River Watch Shrimp, which comes wrapped in bacon.
Maryland crab soup was loaded with generous lumps of back-fin crab meat and crisp vegetables, and seasoned the way we like it - on the spicy side. Cream of crab soup was thick, but not pasty (as often is the case), and also loaded with crab meat. The clams casino were just right, with the bacon crisp and the clams moist and well-seasoned. The steamed clams and the steamed mussels were fresh, juicy and swimming in delicious lemony, buttery broths. The bacon on the River Watch shrimp was too crisp, but the broiled shrimp were so plump and tender, it seems petty to complain.
Our entrees were a while in coming because, as our waitress put it, "the kitchen is changing the grease." In spite of that unappetizing intro, everything we ordered was well worth the wait. Crab cakes were superb - large, crisp, golden and full of jumbo lump. Broiled stuffed shrimp were huge and tender, and accommodated a generous filling of crab imperial. A crab imperial was itself delicious, brimming with crab meat, lightly seasoned and baked until crisp on top.
A New York strip was flavorful, medium-rare as requested, and served with tasty sauteed mushrooms. All of the entrees came with good baked potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli that was, miraculously, not overcooked.
The only down side to our visit to River Watch was the service, which was not on a par with the rest of the experience. Although jolly servers surrounded us, ours was dour and not terribly attentive. Worse, the entire wait staff seemed to find it necessary to communicate with each other by shouting, and they tossed dirty dishes into a nearby bin, rather than just placing them there. All that clatter just wasn't necessary.
Still, we ended our meal on a high note. The desserts, while not made in-house, were superb. We tried a slice of each of the evening's offerings - lemon chiffon cake, chocolate cake, cannoli cake and cheesecake. A delicate, sweet ladyfinger crust nicely offset the lemon chiffon cake's slight tartness. The chocolate cake boasted old-fashioned hard icing over moist layers of cake and a light, mousselike filling.
Cannoli cake had a classic cream-cheese-and-chocolate-chip cannoli filling as icing over a very light mocha cake with equally light mocha filling. The cheesecake, dense and not too sweet, was the genuine article.
River Watch Restaurant & Marina
207 Nanticoke Road, Essex
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Prices: Appetizers $5.95 to $8.95; entrees $14.95 to $24.95
Food: *** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **