New seafood memories made at Mama's

Restaurateurs try to summon spirit of Connolly's -- really, there's no need

Sunday Gourmet

January 18, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Twenty years ago, I said in a review of a popular Baltimore seafood house: "When finally the weeds are pushing their way through the Chart House's foundations and the lizards are sunning themselves on Harborplace's abandoned terraces, I have the feeling Connolly's will still be dishing out crab cakes and fried oysters."

Naturally, it closed not long after I wrote the review. The reason I bring it up here is that Connolly's has been resurrected in the form of Mama's on the Half Shell, a new restaurant and bar on Canton Square. The owners wanted to re-create the atmosphere and food of that popular Baltimore institution.

I feel vindicated. My prophecy wasn't so ridiculous after all.

Of course, this is revisionist history, Connolly's as seen through a loving haze of nostalgia. (It may or may not be significant that its name is misspelled on the new menu.) The old Connolly's was, well, ugly in an endearing sort of way. Mama's on the Half Shell is a very handsome place. It's loaded with a sense of history, and decked out with an African teak bar, period appointments, marble-topped tables downstairs, old waterfront photographs, fish prints, a collection of oyster plates mounted on the dark walls, and tin ceilings. The tables are impossibly close together in the upstairs dining room and wine bar, but the room feels cozy rather than crowded.

The person who did the decorating is Patrick "Scunny" McCusker, owner of Nacho Mama's a couple of doors down and husband of Jacqueline McCusker, who owns the new place with Sean Fisher, formerly the head chef at Nacho Mama's. When I complimented his work (McCusker was making a tour of the tables), he said, "This is House & Garden. Nacho Mama's is the National Enquirer."

House & Garden it isn't. Mama's on the Half Shell is a noisy, crowded, fun place to be to eat oysters in every conceivable guise, drink beer and sample some of the "Connelly's Classics" like fried oysters, crab imperial and crab cakes.

The kitchen throws jumbo lump crab meat around with reckless abandon, so the crab cakes and crab imperial are generous to a fault. What's odd, though, is that the recipes bear about as much resemblance to the Connolly's dishes -- admittedly I remember them only dimly -- as the decor does to the original seafood house. This is not a bad thing at all; I'm just wondering why the nostalgia if you're going to use modern-day improvements. Crab cakes never used to have jumbo lump meat imported from other areas of the world, and they were always fried, not broiled. And crab imperial never included roasted red pepper and scallions, did it? Did seafood house kitchens even use scallions then, or roasted red peppers in place of canned pimentos? And crab imperial was always covered with a thick coating of mayonnaise, not a light dusting of breadcrumbs.

But some things never change, and you wouldn't want them to. Mama's oyster stew is made with bluepoints, cream and butter. Yum. Fried oysters have just the right amount of crusty golden breading and taste just as great as they ever did, maybe even better with the nouveau chipotle lime cocktail sauce. And many things have changed for the better, like Mama's version of oysters Rockefeller, with fresh spinach, Pernod and not too much grated Parmesan, so the fresh taste of the oysters shines through.

There are a few dishes like the seafood bouillabaisse that don't try to look back. This would have been a spectacular creation if the broth hadn't been oversalted; but the shrimp, scallops, clams and fish weren't overcooked -- always a danger in this sort of dish -- and the saffron rice soaked up the broth engagingly. The kitchen, in fact, does a good job of not overcooking its seafood. I'm thinking of the enormous scallops wrapped in smoky pieces of applewood bacon for a starter. We nixed the optional barbecue sauce, so the seafood-bacon combination could really strut its stuff.

I'd happily come back for a glass of pinot grigio and the combination plate of steamed shellfish. Clams, oysters, mussels and shrimp were fat and perfectly cooked. The wine list, by the way, is very limited, as you might expect. But there are lots of wines by the glass, and Mondays every bottle is specially priced.

Desserts are homemade and rich beyond imagining. Most notably this time of year, there's a silky pumpkin cheesecake with a crumb crust and a chewy, warm derby pie.

Right now, what's wrong with the food and somewhat erratic service at Mama's is obvious: The place is too successful for its own good. The wait staff and kitchen must be overwhelmed, so things fall through the cracks. I'm thinking of the promised bread that was missing from the steamer combination (crackers and cheese but not bread come with dinner) and the shoestring potatoes so egregiously oversalted they couldn't be eaten. The vegetable of the day was a whole broccoli crown that hadn't been separated.

But when things quiet down, if they quiet down, some of these rough edges will get smoothed away. Don't go to Mama's on the Half Shell thinking that your favorite old seafood house has been resurrected. Instead, be glad that Canton has a new seafood house that can hold its own against your memories.

Mama's on the Half Shell

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 2901 O'Donnell St., Canton

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, brunch Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$13.95; main courses, $10.95-$20.95

Call: 410-276-3160

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

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