Feel Isn't Local, But The Food's Fine

Restaurant Review

Out-of-state Real Seafood Even Gets The Crab Cake Right

August 23, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

How much does it matter to you that a restaurant feel local? This is the question I was mulling over as I had an enjoyable meal at the new Real Seafood Co. in Annapolis. The small, Michigan-based chain delivers decent food, professional service, a handsome setting and, well, a fun evening.

But it feels like a restaurant that could be almost anywhere - in Maryland, Michigan, Florida, Ohio. (And indeed it is in those four places.) If that doesn't bother you, you'll have a fine time there.

It's an odd setup, but one that works very well for the customer. Up a flight of stairs in the Real Seafood Co.'s lobby is the Chop House, a fine-dining steakhouse and another in the Mainstreet Ventures restaurant group. It means that the beef is high-quality at the Real Seafood Co., while the fish is very fresh at the Chop House.

The two also share an excellent pastry chef. Although the desserts are different for each restaurant, if you're dying for one on the other's menu, your server will happily fetch it for you.

I'm not sure what inspired Mainstreet Ventures to open in Annapolis, which has more than its share of restaurants serving good local fish and shellfish. Real Seafood isn't trying to be local except for a crab cake and some local oysters. Instead, the menu consists of Maine lobster, Spanish paella, a New England clam bake, Alaskan king crab legs, Shanghai-style salmon and sushi, as well as more familiar seafood preparations.

You can tell it's a seafood restaurant from the moment you walk in. The 25-foot lobster hanging from the ceiling, the marlin on the wall and the model sailboats give it away. But the look is contemporary and bright, a little more jazzy than some seafood places, with a sushi bar, comfortable booths, "waterfall" curtains and a terrazzo floor.

The menu is huge, featuring sushi, raw bar selections, "fresh catch" items, appetizers, entrees and sandwiches. It changes weekly. On the back is the wine list, with a heavy emphasis on chardonnays, a not-unreasonable markup, and an interesting gimmick: You can get 5-ounce or 8-ounce pours if you order by the glass.

It's easy to run up the check here. First courses are pretty much in the $10 range, while if you want fish or shellfish for your main course, it will mostly cost you in the mid-$20s. Your best bet for a deal, and it's a good one, is the lobster special the restaurant is running right now. For $19.95, you get a 1 1/4-pound lobster, coleslaw, another side dish and the restaurant's excellent hot, house-made rolls.

Speaking of that coleslaw, it seems to be a signature dish. It's perfectly fine coleslaw, freshly made with blue cheese and vinaigrette instead of mayonnaise; but it's served as a separate course, like a tossed salad. If you would prefer a salad, it's yours for an extra $1.95 - a very good one, with cucumber, tomato, pine nuts, blue cheese and vinaigrette. Or you could substitute the fresh-tasting gazpacho instead.

I'm always suspicious when out-of-staters feature a Maryland crab cake, but Real Seafood's could make an Annapolis Top 10 list. The crab lumps have flavor, and the binder doesn't overwhelm them. A mustard sauce the consistency of homemade mayonnaise is a luxurious touch. The crab cakes are available as either "crab cake bites" for an appetizer or as an entree.

Oyster lovers will appreciate the selection. When I visited, there were old salts from Virginia, Choptank sweets from Maryland and bluepoints from Long Island. You can have them raw with seafood and mignonette sauces or baked with spinach, garlic and bacon. I say leave well enough alone and have them raw.

Steamed clams, however, benefit from a few frills, like sweet red peppers and chorizo in a butter, garlic and white wine sauce.

We didn't try much of the sushi, but we did have an avocado maguro salad, with sushi-grade tuna over a perfectly ripe avocado. The drizzle of sauce sparked with wasabi, seaweed salad with sesame seeds and daikon added up to a handsome but filling first course.

The kitchen fell down on the job a bit with our fish entrees. The fish was very fresh but overproduced. Sole had a golden crust of Parmesan cheese and a lemon-caper sauce; the sole itself got lost in the shuffle. The same was true of the rockfish, placed on couscous studded with wild mushrooms and finished with a lobster sauce. I would suggest the "Fresh Catch" items, which are simply broiled, grilled or blackened.

There are dishes for non-seafood eaters, like two medallions of beef, cooked as ordered. They swam in a pool of dark, winey sauce with fresh spinach on the side. The beef was fine, but I'd probably stick to seafood next time.

Desserts are made in house and are worth considering. I'm not a huge coconut custard pie fan, but this is a beautiful one. The cheesecake is exemplary. And Real Seafood may have the best key lime pie I've ever tasted because it's the texture of a chiffon pie. Only the chocolate mousse, heavily spiked with brandy, wasn't finished.

Annapolis always feels like the seafood capital of Maryland to me as well as the state capital, so it seems odd to go to an out-of-state chain when I'm there for fish and shellfish. But if that doesn't bother you, the Real Seafood Co. does many things very well, and that lobster special can't be beat.

Real Seafood Co.

Where: : 1915 Towne Centre Blvd., Suite 150, Annapolis

Contact: : 888-456-3463, realseafoodcorestaurant.com.

Hours: : Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Appetizers: : $6.95-$11.95

Entrees: : $13.95-$26.95

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

Service: : *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: : *** (3 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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