At the Waterfront, a skilled hand in the kitchen

SUNDAY GOURMET

Still under renovation, restaurant reopens for dinner in Fells Point

September 04, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Don't get your expectations up too high if you're eating at the Waterfront Hotel. After all, the maitre d' was wearing an "I eat glue" T-shirt the night we were there.

The Waterfront, first of all, isn't a hotel -- and hasn't been for 50 years. The downstairs bar, best known as the cops' hangout in Homicide, reopened under new management last May after extensive improvements. The upstairs dining room has only recently reopened, serving dinner Thursday through Sunday. Pub chow is available both places; a new, young chef, Kenny Plant, who has worked at Sotto Sopra and the Pickled Parrot, is also offering a menu of daily specials.

The renovation of the dining room has gotten some press around town. As a result, I was expecting it to be quite handsome and Victorian in feel. No such luck. The refurbishment seems to be continuing, so I'm not going to complain too vigorously (although someone could vacuum the stairs). I found the new dining room, which seats 60, a bit stark. When the weather is cool enough for the working fireplace to be in use, I'll change my tune. But in August the big, empty room didn't appeal, in spite of, or maybe because of, its exposed brick, chandeliers, walls painted blood red, and bare wood floors -- which didn't look in much better shape than they probably did a century ago. (The building dates back to the 1700s.)

Much of our meal, however, did appeal.

The food was a long time coming, especially considering we were one of only two tables that night. I'm sure, however, that people were ordering food at the bar downstairs. But when the food finally arrived, we were happy. And the price is right.

A dish like the seafood pan roast -- somewhere between an appetizer and an entree -- shows what the kitchen can do. It's not a complicated dish, but the delicate balance between shellfish and light broth enriched with cream is perfectly struck. Smoked salmon rolled around mascarpone cheese works almost as well, with the salty-smooth rolls playing off a lemony artichoke salad, and capers, onion and tomato for decoration.

Plant knows that the clean, simple flavors of ceviche -- in this case, scallops and shrimp -- don't need much of a supporting cast. A marinade of citrus juices with an accent of cilantro does the trick. Even something as ordinary as barbecued bacon-wrapped shrimp is elegantly conceived: The sauce is lemon butter with herbs.

It's hard to imagine that the "Bawlimer [sic] Imperial, Hon" comes out of the same kitchen. The casserole of crab, scallops and shrimp, baked in a traditional, mayonnaise-y imperial sauce, is OK, but nothing to write home about. The promised fried oysters are missing.

A fish tacos plate is surprising because it's not the fish or the tacos that leave a lasting impression. It's the untraditional and seductively good guacamole: big chunks of soft, ripe avocado tossed with seasonings. A small fried tortilla shell is filled with pieces of swordfish and catfish, good but a bit overcooked. Fajitas come on the side. Load them up with fish, grilled peppers and sour cream.

A moist salmon burger is a simpler but satisfying alternative, with dill-horseradish cream for zing.

The menu isn't all seafood. There's a generous New York strip, not prime but full of flavor 2 / 3 pounded with peppercorns and served medium rare as ordered. The meat isn't as high-end as I've enjoyed at the upscale steak houses I've been to lately, nor does it cost anywhere near as much. The red wine demiglace is as accomplished as any sauce accompanying those pricier steaks.

This isn't a restaurant that you expect to have much in the way of desserts, but it does offer a brownie, fried ice cream and, most impressively, a berry quesadilla -- a sort of Mexican version of a blueberry-filled crepe with sweetened cream cheese.

The Waterfront Hotel's renovation may not be all it's cracked up to be. And you may wonder where the wait staff has disappeared to and how the kitchen could possibly handle a full dining room. But if Chef Plant is in the kitchen, the moderately priced food won't disappoint.

Waterfront Hotel

Food: *** (3 STARS)

Service: ** (2 STARS)

Atmosphere: ** (2 STARS)

Where: 1710 Thames St., Fells Point

Hours: Upstairs dining room open Thursday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3-$11.50; Entrees: $8-$22

Call: 410-537-5055

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

Get answers

Have a question about dining out in the Baltimore area? Ask Elizabeth Large, The Sun's restaurant critic. E-mail your questions to sun.features@ baltsun.com, or mail to Elizabeth Large, The Sun, Features, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278.

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