You can't go wrong with steamed crabs

Restaurant: The new Bo Brooks in Canton does the tradition very well, but some more innovative dishes come with glitches.

Sunday Gourmet

September 17, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

People like to eat steamed crabs on the waterfront. The concept is so obvious you wonder why more crab houses don't open near the water in the first place, instead of, say, in windowless dining rooms on Bel Air Road.

Of course, Bo Brooks, the Bel Air Road crab house in question, was a neighborhood institution and did very well just where it was. But times change, as do neighborhoods. This summer, to the delight of Baltimoreans and tourists alike, the crab house moved to spiffy new quarters in Canton. It's had instant success -- in fact, the first time I called to make reservations on a weeknight, I couldn't get in.

You want a waterfront view? None better. And the view is almost as good inside as out because the walls of the new Bo Brooks' dining room are all windows. But right now, if you're smart, you'll ask for a table outside on the wraparound covered balcony, which seats 100. The noise inside is staggeringly loud.

We were happy because we were on the deck on a beautiful evening with a slight breeze blowing; but whenever the door opened, we were hit with a blast of sound. Our waitress, who looked slightly shell-shocked, told us without being asked that the owners are planning to put up acoustical panels in the ceiling.

The restaurant has wisely kept much that was good about the old location, from the batter-fried stuffed hard crab (is that a great concept or what?) to our wonderful waitress. You may wonder why, if she was so wonderful, I'm giving the service only 2 1/2 stars. Unfortunately she was wonderful but overworked; we waited endlessly for each course. The kitchen's fault or the lack of staff? Who knows.

Bo Brooks is still very much a crab house, but the owners have added a chef and some upscale seafood dishes, as well as offering the "Traditional Bo Brooks" menu. The staff manages the restaurant's split personality well. Order crabs for a first course, as we did, and you get brown paper for a tablecloth, plastic glasses for your water and lots of paper napkins. When your pan-seared Chilean sea bass is ready, the waitress whisks away the paper and plastic and replaces them with pretty blue place mats, cloth napkins and real glasses.

The biggest problem for the new chef is that he's ready to cook almond-encrusted arctic char with a jalapeno honey vinaigrette, and probably 99 out of a 100 people who come to Bo Brooks are there for the crabs. In another year, I'm afraid, reality will set in and the most exciting thing on the menu will be stuffed flounder.

But right now you can get, for instance, a nicely done rockfish with a thin crust of orange and horseradish or sea bass with crisp fried leeks and chopped summer tomatoes. You can tell the chef knows what he's doing, but so many meals are coming out of the kitchen so quickly that glitches are likely.

Some are small. (The sugar snap peas that came with each dinner needed stringing.) Some are large, like a special that evening, veal stuffed with spinach and crab, which began with veal that was too tough to enjoy. It had a sauce that had started to congeal, I suppose from waiting for the rest of the dinners.

Still, you can't go wrong with the crabs, which were fat, perfectly spiced and steamed to order. A group of men at a table near us had their own version of upscale dining at Bo Brooks. They ordered trays of crabs, had melted butter to dip the crabmeat in and were drinking red wine from stemmed glasses instead of beer.

So my advice is to make crabs your dinner, or wait awhile until the weather gets colder and things quiet down at the restaurant before you order the more complicated entrees. Oddly enough, our most elaborate appetizer was the most successful. Bo Brooks' crab puff, inspired by the Greek spanakopita, was a fabulous combination of puff pastry filled with a bit of crab, spinach and gorgonzola cheese. Its sauce was mostly cream. Or start with sambuca oysters, the plump bivalves enhanced with melted butter and a bit of pancetta (Italian bacon) just tinged with the anise-flavored liqueur.

Beer-battered shrimp with Cajun applesauce were more down to earth. I could have done without their strawberry sauce, but they had a lot of appeal anyway. That night there was a nicely done salad of Maryland tomatoes and asparagus offered as a first course; you could also get Maryland or cream of crab soup.

Traditionally you don't have dessert at a crab house. You're lucky if there's anything more than a piece of cheesecake on the menu. Bo Brooks' desserts aren't made in house, but it does have them, mostly fancy cheesecakes. After a meal like this, though, I would finish up with the passion-fruit sorbet or the ice cream with a chocolate sauce our waitress said was made on the premises.

BO BROOKS

Food: **1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **1/2

Where: 2701 Boston St., Canton

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$10.95; main courses, $11.95-$24.95

Call: 410-558-0202

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