Grill: a spinoff that has a difference

M & S

All that you love about McCormick & Schmick is there -- and more

Sunday Gourmet

December 07, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The new M & S Grill has all the things you love about McCormick & Schmick, its parent restaurant: the clubby, comfortable atmosphere; the seafood; the attentive waiters. If you don't love McCormick & Schmick, you're in the minority, at least judging from the waits I've had the couple of times I've eaten there.

Don't worry about the fact that the M & S Grill is selling itself as something different -- a throwback to the early 20th century. It's almost a clone of its parent as far as decor is concerned, with a large mahogany bar, dark wood paneling, deep green walls, booths, white tablecloths and period appointments. But its spaces are smaller and more intimate.

The two menus are somewhat different, but the new one is every bit as geared to modern tastes. I don't think an early 20th-century grill would have offered buffalo chicken tenders, a baby spinach salad with sliced strawberries or a teriyaki rib-eye steak with a pineapple slice. M & S doesn't have the range of seafood McCormick & Schmick does, but when you can get salmon, tilapia, swordfish, flounder, catfish, trout, cod and shellfish, how many other choices do you need?

Right now, the restaurant isn't too busy at night, although that will change when it gets discovered or when the weather warms up so people can eat at the outdoor tables overlooking the water. That means the waiters are attentive and the food comes out of the kitchen almost too fast (something I appreciated on a worknight, but not everyone might).

The food is traditional American, but it's an offbeat mix, with as much meat and poultry as seafood, seven comfort food selections like chicken potpie, and three Baltimore specialties. The dishes chosen to represent Baltimore are a Maryland fried hard-shell crab stuffed with a crab cake and encased in beer batter, a pound of Old Bay steamed shrimp, and crab cakes with tartar sauce. Interesting, but I imagine most people wanting crab will gravitate toward the crab cakes, not the hard crab. I like those crab cakes. They're the old-fashioned kind -- deep-fried and mixed with seasonings and binding -- not the broiled lumps of backfin and little else. (OK, I like those, too.)

For starters, the grill has calamari flown in fresh daily from Rhode Island. Don't ask me why Rhode Island, but it is exceptionally tender and flavorful and delicately battered. The only negative is that it comes with a marmalade sauce as well as cocktail sauce and aioli. The mind reels.

Crab soup is the usual concoction of overdone vegetables, but the kitchen piles a staggering amount of crab meat on top. A stylish carpaccio was the best of all the beginnings, the thin slices of raw beef beautifully decorated with aioli, curls of cheese and capers.

Entrees ranged from stunners to just so-so. In the stunner category fell -- don't laugh -- the meatloaf. It had understated seasoning, a rich brown gravy, and absolutely ambrosial mashed potatoes. But the prime rib, which can be had in one of two sizes, was mildly disappointing. If I had to guess, I would guess not prime. In any case, it was mighty chewy.

Yellowtail flounder remained moist and flavorful because of its grated Parmesan crust. Its lemon butter sauce studded with capers was all that needed to be done to it. Huge shrimp grilled with pesto on skewers were knock-em-dead garlicky and overcooked, but the handsome roasted vegetables on the side just about made up for their flaws. I like the fact, by the way, that each dish came with different vegetables. The beef was flanked by asparagus spears, and the meatloaf had peas that our waiter swore the kitchen had shelled. They tasted like it.

Desserts held no surprises. Well, not much of the meal did, but that was fine. Sometimes -- specifically on a cold winter's night -- you don't want surprises. What you may want is a dense chocolate velvet cake, a super bread pudding made with cinnamon buns and creme anglaise (my favorite), a peach cobbler or a creme brulee. M & S has them all.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the restaurant also has the best cosmopolitan I've tasted. It certainly isn't traditional -- the fresh lime juice gives it an unusually strong hit of citrus -- and I don't think I approve of the maraschino cherry, but unless you're wedded to the tried and true, it's definitely worth ordering.

M & S Grill

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 201 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.70-$12.90; main courses, $12.70-$29.80

Call: 410-547-9333

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

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