Matthew's 1600 docks where Wharfside was

Menu Planner

New restaurant in Catonsville is pretty, affordable, and does a lot right

Sunday Gourmet

October 31, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Matthew's 1600, the new restaurant in Catons-ville, does so many things right you have to wonder why it doesn't go one step further and do everything right.

The new owners have spent a lot of money turning the old Wharfside, which had been closed about a year, into a comfortable new dining room and a cheerful bar with booths and lots of blond wood.

The staff couldn't be nicer.

The menu is user-friendly, with plenty of entrees under $15 as well as dinner salads and sandwiches. Perfect for a bite after work. But the dining room is pretty enough, with tablecloths, cloth napkins, attractive art and soft lighting, for a more formal meal. And a few more elaborate dishes (read expensive) like filet bearnaise are available when you're feeling celebratory.

If you call to make reservations, the hostess will ask you if you want to be seated in the bar or the dining room. At least the night we were there, the customers were pretty much divided by age. Under 40, in the bar. Over 40, in the dining room.

The menu, though, is the same, so you can get -- as one of us did -- the crab pretzel in the dining room. This is one of those old Baltimore dishes that work better in concept than in reality. The huge soft pretzel is impressive, but even when you top it with crab dip, cheddar and jack cheese, you still get mostly dough.

A steamed platter of oysters, clams and mussels was so well steamed the shellfish were starting to shrivel. And if you told me the salty remoulade sauce also doubled as the salad's creamy herb dressing, I wouldn't have been surprised.

The best of our first courses was a creamy chowder made with smoked chicken for extra zing, followed closely by potato quesadillas.

Yes, potato quesadillas. They were better than they sounded. Imagine quesadillas with cheese, sour cream, bacon and salsa, only the main ingredient is mashed potatoes instead of something like chicken. If you can forget how bizarre they are, and if you aren't on a low-carb diet, they are strangely appealing.

Sometimes the kitchen will surprise you. I thought with all the carbo-loading (remember when that was a good thing, at least for athletes?) that salads and vegetables would be second-class citizens here. Not so. The salads had fresh greens and good vegetables; and the vegetable of the day, a squash mixture, was also fine.

Our waitress recommended the Avalon when we asked about sandwiches. This is not something you want to have after the crab pretzel. It's a sort of upscale version of a Philly cheese steak put on sourdough bread and grilled, so it ends up being kind of greasy, particularly with the peppered horseradish mayonnaise. (On second thought, maybe it was the peppered horseradish mayonnaise masquerading as remoulade sauce that we had with the steamed shellfish platter.)

For more of a dinner, you could get Chicken Chesapeake, a boneless chicken breast with lump crab meat and a bit of bearnaise sauce or salmon fillet with a cream sauce, flavored with dill and Dijon mustard. These both had potential, but their sauces were so salty you had to eat around them. Sides like pasta salad and coleslaw were ho-hum.

Of our main courses, only our pasta dish, a special that evening, really sang. Ravioli Louisa had a lovely texture and were plump with a porcini mushroom filling. A well-balanced tomato-cream sauce finished them off.

Our meal ended on a positive note, with pastries made by a local baker. They were a little different from the usual without being too different. You have to have some heavily chocolate choice, for instance. This one had layers of devil's food cake, cheesecake and icing. An upscale white chocolate raspberry cheesecake was everything a decadent dessert should be, while both the cinnamon pecan coffee cake with ice cream and the pecan bar with chocolate provided a pleasantly homey ending.

All in all, not a bad meal. But not a great one either. The Catonsville area needs Matthew's 1600 -- that was clear by how busy it was on a weeknight. But the new restaurant and bar could have customers out the door if the kitchen raised its level by just a little bit.

Matthew's 1600

Food: **1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1600 Frederick Road, Catonsville

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $5.99-$9.99; entrees: $12.50-$25.50

Call: 410-788-2500

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

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