Low tide, high tide

Wharfside's food is uneven, but the prices and service should buoy a visitor's spirits.

Sunday Gourmet

July 14, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

In the restaurant critic business, there are warning signs. I, for instance, knew we were in trouble when my friend's cosmopolitan arrived garnished with a maraschino cherry. If you aren't a cosmo drinker, I guess the equivalent would be to put a lemon twist on a hot fudge sundae.

The evening had started off strangely when the Wharfside's maitre d' seated the four of us in the pink dining room. (Now that I think of it, it was a salmon pink, so maybe it's more appropriate for a seafood restaurant than I felt at the time. Still, it wasn't the most appetizing color in the world, given that it edged toward Pepto-Bismol in the pink spectrum.)

Anyway, he seated us at a round table for six in the half-empty room. When I suggested one of the tables for four on the raised level, he told me it was the smoking section. I wasn't sure it was legal to have an open smoking section, but what the heck. Puzzled but game, we sat at the table for six and prepared to shout, only to have the maitre d' come back to move us up to the table for four. Later, our waiter laughed at the idea that anyone would be smoking there.

But back to the warning signs. For me, it's always a warning sign if a menu promises 24 different varieties of fresh fish on a given night without any disclaimer like "subject to availability," especially when the restaurant isn't very busy. But maybe that's just the cynic in me.

Here were some more concrete problems:

The hollandaise on the oysters Rockefeller looked as if it had been squeezed out of a tube.

The dish's spinach resembled some other greens, and even tasting it didn't give me a clue as to what it was.

The calamari came in thick little cubes of fried batter, with very little flavor of squid at all.

The marinara sauce on the mussels tasted like canned stewed tomatoes.

The fried sea scallops main course consisted of five scallops served on a butter plate with a sprig of parsley.

The bisque was gummy with unidentifiable bits of seafood.

Soft-shell crabs -- supposedly sauteed in butter -- were heavily breaded, soggy and served on triangles of white bread.

So what was good about our dinner at the Wharfside? First of all, the prices. Most of the entrees don't even approach $20. Dinners come with a salad and vegetable or two vegetables, so you aren't nickeled and dimed to death.

A side of Wharf fries, thick and hot, arrived at the table five minutes after our main courses did, but they were worth the wait. The mixed vegetables, although uninspired, were fresh.

We followed our waiter's advice and tried the stuffed flounder. The fish hadn't been out of the water long and wasn't overcooked, and the crab imperial stuffing featured nice lumps of crab and wasn't too gloppy. Likewise the salmon, while cooked well done, was fresh, and its mustard sauce added some zing. In fact, all of the seafood we had was fine -- it just hadn't been treated with the respect it deserved by the kitchen. The moral, I suppose, is that simpler is better here.

Desserts had no mitigating circumstances. My guess is that they had simply sat in the fridge too long. The tiramisu tasted off, the rest of them (an apple pie, a slice of chocolate cake) were merely tired.

To end on a slightly upbeat note, our likable waiter was surprisingly competent, with only one exception. After he gave my husband a little wine to taste, he poured me a glass and then returned the bottle to the ice bucket and disappeared, leaving it up to us to fill my husband's glass.

Wharfside

Food: * 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: **

Where: 1600 Frederick Road, Catonsville

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $3.99-$8.99; main courses, $13.99-$25.99

Call: 410-788-1400

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

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