Dinner stop reflects a changed Cambridge

Canvasback offers casual fine dining at formal prices

Sunday Gourmet

March 14, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

A few years ago if you had told me Cambridge would be a vacation destination for Baltimoreans, I would have laughed. It was just a town to drive through on the way to Ocean City.

With the opening of the Hyatt Chesapeake Bay resort 18 months ago, all that changed. Tourists arrived in droves who were willing to spend -- even used to spending -- $50 a person for dinner. One of the beneficiaries was the Canvasback, Cambridge's fine dining restaurant. (It's also a sometimes raucous pub with live blues performances, which makes for an interesting combination.)

The Canvasback's opening in 2000 had nothing to do with the Hyatt, but it's hard to imagine it could exist without it. Not when entrees average $24. The prices are surprising because this isn't one of those elegant little Shore restaurants, but a place where guests are comfortable in jeans. On a Saturday you might eat your baked Chilean sea bass while listening to songwriters' open-mike night.

The restaurant's layout is odd. The huge space, formerly a Woolworth's, is divided into a design center on one side, a bar on the other, and a narrow dining room in between. The decor is agreeable enough, with a pressed tin ceiling, soft gold sponge-painted walls, vintage French posters and white linen on the tables. The iron chairs with wooden seats are uncomfortable, but I've perched on worse in Baltimore's edgier restaurants.

The waitresses are young, personable, efficient and quite casual. The food gets on the table as quickly as you'd expect when everything is cooked to order, but this isn't elegant service. To give you an example: Each place is set with a red and a white wine glass. When the hostess seated my husband and me, she removed the two extra place settings but not their glasses. We ordered wine by the glass so we ended up with eight extra glasses. When I finally lined them up on the end of the table, a light bulb went off in her head, and she took them away.

The food, too, has a casual feel -- in spite of the big-ticket prices. It's Eastern Shore meets northern Italy, with a stop or two at a bar. So, for instance, there's a traditional pub crab and artichoke dip on the limited list of appetizers, but there's also a cheese tray for two and a smooth tapenade served with red grapes, white beans, goat cheese and crisp wafers.

You could also start with a thick, creamy crab soup loaded with lumps of crab or a salad. The only other first course is a combination of scallops and shrimp swimming in a white wine, butter, and knock-'em-down garlic sauce. It, like the other appetizers, seems designed to be shared. The salads are a less daunting choice. I'd recommend the baby spinach with grated parmesan, pine nuts and a mustardy vinaigrette.

The restaurant's signature entree is, not surprisingly, duck. After all, the canvasback duck is, as the menu says, one of the bay's "premier waterfowls." Juicy slices of duck breast have a hauntingly smoky flavor, so good you don't think they need their delicate raspberry-port wine sauce -- until you taste it. The pink-centered rib lamb chops, on the other hand, would have been better without the "wild berry and mint beurre rouge," which resembled berry jam. Dinners the two nights we ate there came with an excellent variation on ratatouille made with yellow squash, zucchini and tomatoes. The starch, a penne with a rich cream, vodka and cheese sauce, would have been addictive if it hadn't been overcooked.

Our dinners the next night were similarly uneven, with much to recommend them but with a few clunkers. The restaurant, interestingly, doesn't do a crab cake, but its crab imperial is a delight, made of lump crab meat, cream, white wine and bits of sweet red pepper. You can have it on its own or on top of a fresh white fillet of grouper.

The restaurant's most popular entree, though, was more problematic. The rockfish wrapped in prosciutto and sauced with an orange beurre blanc was a fine piece of fish, but there was no prosciutto and no orange beurre blanc. Instead it was topped with Italian ham and a slice of orange. Too-garlicky mashed potatoes came with both dinners.

Desserts, made by a local baker, are French-influenced and whipped-cream enhanced, with choices like a pear tart (good, but it suffered from being reheated), a layered chocolate-mocha concoction, and a key lime mousse.

All in all, Canvasback is a far better restaurant with more sophisticated food than you'd expect to find here. The problem is that it's priced itself in the "this had better be flawless" range -- and it isn't always.

Canvasback

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 420 Race St., Cambridge

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $10.95-$12.95; main courses, $18.95-$29

Call: 410-221-7888

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

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