Looks can be deceiving, but taste cannot

October 24, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff | Robin Tunnicliff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There are two key things to know about Big Al's of Fells Point. First, it's in Middle River (we'll explain the Fells Point bit later). Second, what's inside is much better than the slightly downtrodden outside would lead you to expect. Remember that old chestnut about deceptive appearances? Well, Big Al's defines that.

All the food we ordered was top-notch, with the lone exception of a watery slab of flounder. The service was admirable, given that it was provided by a teen-age girl charged with seating, serving and busing four or five tables. Alone.

The knotty-pine dining room screams retro, from the captain's chairs to the slightly cross-eyed deer whose head is stuffed and mounted on the wall. Across the small room, there's a homespun mural of life on the bay emblazoned across the wall. Over near the kitchen, there's the obligatory ship model under glass that every seafood place should have.

FOR THE RECORD - The name and address of a restaurant reviewed in yesterday's Live section were incorrect. The restaurant is Al's Seafood at 1551 Eastern Blvd. The Sun regrets the error.

In Manhattan, this place would be "of the moment," with Moby playing in the background. But Big Al's has Dino crooning away (a delightfully uncontrived bit of hipness).

Back to the really, really good food: Big Al's oyster stew had enough plump oysters to require the use of a fork instead of a spoon. But the spoon was absolutely necessary to get every drop of the milky broth that was infused with the taste of celery and hints of parsley.

Clams casino were better than any I've ever had, thanks to an imaginative combination of green pepper, parmesan and oregano added to the traditional mix of clams and bacon. We also loved an appetizer of shrimp in a blanket (bacon), coated on one side with about a quarter-inch of Cajun spices.

Two sizeable soft-shell crabs were crisply fried on the outside and sweetly moist inside. A darker-than-average peppery cole slaw served on the side worked well with the crabs, much better than the run-of-the-mill sugary slaw we've had all too often in other restaurants.

The shrimp-and-onions special was perfectly cooked; each shrimp (and there were a lot) was tender, and the translucent onions were soft and buttery.

The flounder was the downer -- a watery, tasteless thing with no trace of the lemon, wine and butter it was supposed to be broiled in. Were it not for a mass of crispy sweet-potato fries, a cinnamon-charged apple sauce, a thin slice of moist, dense strawberry-swirl cheesecake and a few nibbles of a chocolate-bottomed Black Forest cheesecake, one of us would have left hungry.

The flounder's disappointing showing stood out here perhaps more than it might have elsewhere because Big Al's has long prided itself on serving fresh seafood. The Strzegowski family opened a crab-picking plant on the Eastern Shore in 1947, then jumped across the bay to open a restaurant in Fells Point several years later. Al Strzegowski moved the business into the present space in 1982. He took the Fells Point tag with him, because by then the name had stuck.

As the old saying goes: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But please, Big Al, fix the flounder.

Big Al's of Fells Point

Where: 1551 Eastern Ave., Middle River

Open: Daily for dinner

Prices: Appetizers $2.25 to $9.95; entrees $4.95 to $24.95

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Call: 410-682-4828

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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