Surf or turf, simple is the best

Restaurant Review

October 15, 2006|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,sun restaurant critic

You can tell by the name that Rib 'n Reef is a throwback. The new owners of the spot where Gibby's Seafood used to be are gambling that folks in the neighborhood are ready for some retro cuisine. The draws are big servings of beef and seafood, salads that are included in the price of the entree and rich desserts.

The restaurant's menu is extensive. No small plates or fusion cuisine here - with the possible exception of the lobster dumplings with raspberry teriyaki sauce (which sound dreadful and thankfully are no longer available, although they haven't been taken off the menu yet).

This is a concept that could work if it's done well, but the place was pretty empty compared to when it was Gibby's. Of course, Gibby's served hard-shell crabs year-round in a non-crabhouse atmosphere, and Rib 'n Reef doesn't. I always thought crabs were probably Gibby's main drawing card.

Instead, the new restaurant focuses on rib (not ribs - rib, as in prime rib and steaks), several kinds of fin fish and more lobster dishes than most places offer. The menu and the food itself are elaborate and ambitious, but simpler would be better. As of my visit, simplification was already beginning to happen. Those dumplings are an example, of course. But also the prime rib is no longer served with Yorkshire pudding. The homemade cheesecake is no longer homemade, at least according to our waiter, and the espresso and tiramisu combination no longer comes with a cup of espresso.

The lamb martini appetizer could disappear without my fretting over it. The small chops were greasy, and they lay on a bed of fried spinach leaves in a martini glass with deep-fried stuffed olives. It was simply a lot of grease. (Actually the deep-fried feta olives were weirdly appealing, but I hate myself for admitting it.)

The Maryland crab bisque was the consistency of sausage gravy, although the flavor wasn't bad. Oysters Rockefeller were a special that evening; the oysters were covered in a blanket of chopped spinach and onions strongly flavored with anise liqueur.

The best of our starters was a sampler of Mediterranean appetizers: two triangles of flaky phyllo pastry - one stuffed with spinach and one stuffed with cheese - and baba ghannouj, the traditional eggplant spread.

Judging from our meal, your best bet might be to stick to the rib (no pun intended) part of the menu. The 16-ounce, rosy-rare Delmonico steak, full-bodied and well-marbled, was everything it should have been; and the sauteed mushrooms did nothing to detract from its meaty goodness.

On the other hand, an impressively large piece of sea bass was properly cooked; but the marinara sauce with olives, capers and shrimp overpowered the delicate fish.

Rib 'n Reef has a Maine lobster bake that would be a bargain at $24.95 if the seafood hadn't been overcooked. The 1 1/4 -pound lobster fared best; it was still perfectly edible, but the shrimp, mussels and clams were all a little drier than they should have been.

While most of the meat is steaks or chops, there are a few Italian-inspired dishes, including osso bucco. The braised veal was decent, and the mashed potatoes sparked with blue cheese were excellent, but the whole dish was covered with wisps of fried leeks that gave the dish a strangely hairy look.

Rib 'n Reef does a pretty good job with side dishes, not overcooking the mixed vegetables and serving a credible house or Caesar salad with each entree.

Our mistake was ordering the more elaborate dishes. If you stick to a simple steak, the petite cut of prime rib or a fish fillet you might feel quite happy with your dinner, especially because a vegetable, starch and salad are included in the price.

The place the Rib 'n Reef's overkill works best is desserts. Cheesecake topped with a creamy hot creme brulee would be one example; the warm brownie with ice cream - topped with both caramel and chocolate sauces if you want them - is another. There is also a poached cactus pear filled with berries, which at least had the virtue of being a lighter choice after a heavy dinner. Baklava and rice pudding are among the other options.

Rib 'n Reef gets a lot of things right. The place is huge, with any number of dining rooms, which have been cheerfully and comfortably renovated. There's nothing wrong with the service. And the prices are reasonable enough to be an alternative to the fast casual chains that dot Timonium's landscape. But the menu needs to be streamlined so the kitchen can handle it better.

Podcasts of Elizabeth Large's reviews can be found at

Rib 'n Reef

Food: ** (2 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere:**1/2 (2 1/2 stars)


22 W. Padonia Road, Timonium


Open every day for lunch and dinner


Appetizers, $6.95-$11.95; entrees, $12.95-$32.95


410-560-0905[Outstanding: Good: Fair or uneven: Poor:]

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