The Quest For Seafood

Find the perfect restaurant for shellfish and other favorite dishes


EVEN THOUGH OUR crabs often come from the Gulf, our crab meat from southeast Asia, and our rockfish and oysters from farms, visitors still want to know where Baltimore's great local seafood restaurant is. For that matter, my next-door neighbor wants to know where our great local seafood restaurant is.

Even I want to know where our great local seafood restaurant is.

There are plenty of candidates, which wasn't true when I moved here more than 30 years ago. I always used to have to say any of our good restaurants has good seafood. That's still true, even if it's named the Prime Rib.

The difficulty comes when you try to pick the one seafood restaurant that epitomizes the city, the way Bookbinder's did for Philadelphia. Phillips Harborplace does its best to be The One, but this time of year especially the place is an enormous food factory packed with tourists. (The saving grace is that you can eat on its well-landscaped patio.)

Although the city is much more interested in innovative cuisine than it used to be, traditional seafood restaurants keep opening. Canton's Pearls, for instance, has recently become Dockside, switching from New American to seafood -- it even has a crab fluff on the menu. Steamed crabs will be available on its new deck starting Tuesday.

Mama's on the Half Shell appeared on Canton Square a couple of years ago, trying to re-create the spirit of Connolly's, a Baltimore institution. Mama's is noisy, crowded and fun, a great place to get oysters in every conceivable form, as well as crab dishes and the like.

But visitors to our city not only want great local seafood, they usually want it around the Inner Harbor. It's ironic that most of those restaurants are chains that originated in other cities. When I recommend a favorite restaurant in Essex or Middle River, people counter with: "Isn't there some place downtown?"

The newest of these seafood chains is the Oceanaire Seafood Room, the eighth in an upscale and very expensive "restaurant group." It offers 12 or so kinds of fish daily and about that number of oyster varieties. Legal Sea Foods is a Boston-based chain, McCormick & Schmick's hails from Oregon, and you can get seafood at the Rusty Scupper in New Haven, Conn., as well as in Baltimore. The good news is that they all realize to survive in Baltimore, you do have to serve a good Maryland crab cake.

City Lights, once Harborplace's only non-chain seafood restaurant, has gone out of business.

Local flavor

Of course, what tourists really want to know is where to go for steamed crabs around the harbor. I usually steer them to Bo Brooks in Canton or Obrycki's in Fells Point. Both are overrun with out-of-towners this time of year, but the crabs are hot and the beer is cold. Bo Brooks has a view of the water; balance that with the fact it can be incredibly loud.

Mo's, a local chain, has a couple of locations in Little Italy: Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory, which has steamed crabs, and Mo's Fisherman's Wharf, a more upscale and expensive version, which doesn't.

Another possibility for crabs is Captain James Landing, between Canton and Fells Point. In the summer the restaurant -- which is in the shape of an ocean liner, I might add -- puts picnic tables on the parking lot across the street. There you can pick hard shells and eat corn on the cob next to the water.

Still in the general vicinity but more out of the way is Nick's Fish House on the Patapsco River, an old-fashioned seafood place (although it's relatively new) with great outdoor seating. The decks and rooftop all have a water view.

Yes, you can get steamed crabs there.

But Baltimore has always had lots of places to go for hard shells and crab cakes. What's changed in my years as a restaurant critic has been the number of nontraditional seafood restaurants that have opened. Suddenly we were eating varieties of fish such as bronzini and tilapia along with flounder and rockfish. These days you're more likely to find mahi-mahi with mango salsa than crab imperial on a restaurant's menu.

One of my favorites is the Black Olive in Fells Point, which features seafood with a Greek accent. The food is simple and very fresh -- and pricey. Kali's Court, a few blocks away, is a more elaborate and dressier variation on the seafood and Greek theme.

A downtown seafood restaurant you don't hear as much about is the Blue Sea Grill next to Power Plant Live! You get the best of two worlds there: It's contemporary and hip, with lots of traditional and nontraditional seafood and a great raw bar.

For very fresh seafood with the best view in the city, head straight for Pisces on the 14th floor of the Hyatt. It does have that contemporary hotel dining room feel, though; and you may go into sticker shock if you're not on an expense account.

Head to the water

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