The one thing that can't be improved on at the new Severn Inn in Annapolis is the view.
You can eat outdoors on the multilevel deck; but if it's hot and buggy, the inside rooms, with their floor-to-ceiling windows, are a better bet. Here you can watch dusk steal over the river as you linger at a table beautifully set with white linen, sparkling glassware, candles and one overblown rose (faux, but very pretty).
The decor doesn't try to compete with the view. It's neutral and very new, with large black-and-white photographs of docks and watermen.
All this is good, and the menu holds promise, too. On one side is the short regular menu, on the other the list of daily specials -- mostly fresh fish.
The choices are less Eastern Shore and more New South, with a healthy pinch of New Orleans thrown in for good measure.
Of course, you can get crab cakes, but there are also scallops in a creole cream sauce and blackened shrimp and grits. A fried soft crab comes with a black-eyed pea relish.
About the only description that doesn't sound mouthwatering is the Malpeque oysters with "Bloody Mary shaved ice." The kitchen generously serves seven of these slippery beauties on the half shell, and drizzles them with the equivalent of cocktail sauce. Too bad. Malpeques, available June through October, have the perfect balance of saltiness and sweetness, and many people like to have the option of eating them au naturel.
Some of the rest of our meal followed that pattern -- lovely ingredients or intriguing dishes marred by one flaw. The delicate sweetness of local corn was undercut by too heavy a hand with the pepper mill. Blackened shrimp were so fiery they didn't work as an appetizer. This was unfortunate, because they came with silky grits and an elegant shellfish broth.
A pretty little buttermilk-battered fried chicken breast had the kind of gravy you might get at your school cafeteria. Duxelles and pate were replaced by a portobello mushroom in the beef Wellington, not a substitution that makes a lot of sense to me, since the two are somewhat similar in texture.
A key lime mousse in a margarita glass was cleverly rimmed in sugar, not salt, but with an unintentional result. The mousse tasted gritty.
Still, the kitchen often rises to the occasion. A dreamy risotto studded with crab and asparagus had the background flavor of sweet summer corn. A fat little crab cake sat between fried green tomato slices instead of soda crackers, an inspired variation. Squiggles of aioli flavored with Old Bay decorated the plate.
That beef Wellington didn't have quite the sumptuous luxury of the classic version, but the filet was very fine beef. As long as you order it medium, not rare, the puff pastry will be properly cooked. It rested happily on a bed of spinach, artichokes and a few lumps of crab; a dark, winey sauce tied the various ingredients together.
The kitchen knows how to handle risotto, combining it with fresh tomato and laying on it plump sea scallops grilled with lime juice.
A whole trout, carefully boned, was stuffed simply with lump crab, a treatment that didn't overwhelm its delicate flesh. Notes of thyme and lemon lightened its buttery sauce.
As for desserts, I would recommend ordering your "margarita" without salt -- er, sugar. Or better yet, consider the fabulous little plate of chocolate: a warm, soft-centered chocolate pudding, half souffle, with a small pitcher of Mexican chocolate. (The menu promises chocolate mousse as well, but it didn't appear and we didn't miss it.)
A pretty little shortcake overflowing with fresh strawberries and softly whipped creme chantilly was just as wonderful in a quieter way.
The service was good natured, but casual for a fairly expensive restaurant. To give one example, dishes came out as soon as they were ready, so some of us had to sit with plates in front of us until the others got theirs. Our waitress did her best, but she was kept hopping.
The Severn Inn is working on its problems. Things have improved since it first opened, friends tell me who have eaten there a few times.
That's good news, because Annapolis can't have too many restaurants with a great waterfront view.
Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)
Where: 1993 Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard, Annapolis
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$14; Entrees: $19-$35
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *