Skyline and sophisticated specials

Restaurant: Meal is uneven, but with a view like this, you can take your chances at Rusty Scupper.

Sunday Gourmet

January 07, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

To make a gross generalization, when people come to Baltimore they want to eat seafood on the water. I don't get back to the Inner Harbor seafood restaurants as often as I'd like to, given the interest in them; but I have an excuse in the case of the Rusty Scupper, which I last reviewed four years ago. I was planning to go back last January because the restaurant had hired a new chef, Steve Bohlman. He brought a resume with him that included work in the kitchens of the Polo Grill, Lenny's Chop House, Linwood's and 208 Talbot in St. Michaels.

Bohlman's plan was to create a more upscale menu for the Baltimore branch of the chain, and was waiting for approval from the Scupper's corporate offices before implementing it. I checked in periodically with the restaurant's public relations firm, but the approval never seemed to be forthcoming. I finally decided to go anyway.

The Rusty Scupper's daily specials list offers a few of the more creative dishes that Bohlman hoped would replace the regular menu's straightforward grilled fish, crab cakes, fried oysters, stuffed shrimp and surf and turf. Not that I'm complaining about the regular menu. I'd just as soon have a beautifully grilled piece of fabulously fresh fish as one sauced and garnished (although, of course, I like that too). But with simpler preparations it's harder to disguise the fact when something isn't perfectly grilled or fabulously fresh.

Take, for instance, the "Inner Harbor Platter," a small crab cake, a small fillet of blackened fish (this night, salmon) and three moderately sized shrimp for $29.95. They were arranged with a pile of wild and long grain rice and four asparagus spears. That seems like a lot of money to me for this dinner, particularly because everything was overcooked and served without a lemon wedge or smidgen of seafood sauce (or whatever) to give it some pizazz. And while there was nothing terribly wrong with the salmon itself, I've had fresher.

Contrast that with the pan-seared red snapper, a special that evening. The fish was moist and firm, with a sheer golden crust. A chilled seafood salsa and a red pepper coulis lent intriguing notes, and the homey mashed potatoes sparked with green onions were an almost perfect accompaniment.

A second special, shellfish cassoulet, was equally inventive and appealing. A pretty and flavorful toss of white beans, vegetables and snippets of tasso ham showcased shrimp, clams and mussels.

We fared better with first courses from the regular menu. Crisply fried oysters, bursting with plump flavor, were arranged on their half shells around a piquant coleslaw and seafood sauce. But the promised lemon and second sauce were missing.

Cream of crab soup was a bit thick for my taste, but it was beautifully seasoned and had nice fat lumps of crab meat.

The specials list highlighted an elegant little creation for a first course: escargots, mushrooms, leeks and a bit of fresh spinach cradled in golden puff pastry, with a creamy sauce and a delicate spray of enoki mushrooms for decoration.

It's odd that such a sophisticated dish could come out of the same kitchen that produced our desserts. One thing you can say for them: they were really big. We had to beg our waiter to let us order two for the three of us; he thought one would do. He was right. The slice of chocolate cake with buttercream frosting must have literally been a foot high, which actually isn't all that appetizing, especially not after a rich meal. Besides, it was stale. Our other choice was the Rusty Scupper's version of bananas Foster without the tableside cooking. Think of it as a banana split with brown sugar sauce.

The meal was uneven, but one thing you can't complain about at the Rusty Scupper is the setting. I don't know of a better view of the water, which you get from just about every seat in the house. Warm woods and colorful fabrics soften the angles and glass of the contemporary interior, and multi-levels break up what could be a cavernous space. If you know the right dishes to order, the Rusty Scupper is a good restaurant to keep in mind when your guests ask for a seafood dinner in the Inner Harbor.

RUSTY SCUPPER

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: Inner Harbor Marina, 402 Key Highway

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6.75-$13.95; main courses, $18.95-$45.95

Call: 410-727-3678

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

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