The "Maryland steam pot" entree at Plug Ugly's… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
Plug Ugly's Publick House is a strange name for a tavern. But Baltimore history buffs know the Plug Uglies were a thuggish street gang/political club that ran riot on Baltimore's streets in the 1850s.
Don't worry. The newest resident of O'Donnell Square isn't a gangland. Bartenders with untucked shirts are about as rough as it gets, and the staff here, you may be sorry to know, seems to have been chosen for their gentle dispositions. At first glance, Plug Ugly's could pass for any number of its neighbors, but look closer: The wood-filled bar area and dining rooms have been generously furnished with salvaged material like church pews and antique lighting fixtures.
Plug Ugly's takes over the old Helen's Garden space, but I bet you'd never know that if someone blindfolded you and dropped you inside.
Helen's closed in September 2010, and Plug Ugly's was announced as its replacement soon after. At one point, it seemed that Plug Ugly's was never going to open. The owners have said that the renovations turned out to be more intricate, and expensive, than they had foreseen. The biggest change is the removal of the passageway, or sally port, that awkwardly divided Helen's first-floor space.
The new floor plan is a big improvement, and what has been lost in intimacy has been gained in elbow room. The second floor has a secondary bar and additional dining space, and, a rarity for O'Donnell Square, an open-air back deck serves as a smoking area.
The best things on Plug Ugly's single-page menu are a selection of steam pot entrees. There are three of them: a Cajun pot with crawfish, shrimp and sausage; a New England pot with lobster, clams, snow crabs, mussels and corn; and the Maryland pot with blue crab claws, shrimp, clams, snow crab, potatoes and corn in a surprisingly, and refreshingly, spicy Old Bay broth. The Maryland pot, served with plenty of warm, lightly toasted sourdough, was a real treat, perfect for table sharing.
When Plug Ugly's focus is on this kind of simple but rewarding regional fare, it's smooth going. There are a few well-turned-out appetizers, things like puffy crab-corn fritters with Old Bay aioli and crunchy fried oysters with a homemade cocktail sauce.
But none of the entrees and sandwiches we tried impressed us. A nice-looking salmon entree had too many ideas on one plate — it was encrusted with pomegranate-molasses and chives, served on a bed of "noodles" made from yellow squash and zucchini, and accompanied by a beurre blanc laced, unhelpfully, with balsamic vinaigrette. Underneath it all was a lonely, drab little piece of salmon fighting for attention.
A grilled 8-ounce fillet was neither especially tender nor flavorful, and a roasted-tomato demi-glace had a bloody look about it. Both the shrimp salad and crab cake were blandly seasoned. A rare roast beef sandwich disappointed, too. The roast beef was not rare, and the portion felt skimpy, besides.
The dessert list is small but effective. A bread pudding with whiskey sauce is moist and rich. A peanut butter bombe, covered in dark chocolate, is like a peanut butter cup for adults.
Consistently, dishes are plated with concern and flair, and it's nice to see somewhat ambitious fare like a pan-seared rockfish, served with wild mushrooms and cherry-tomato risotto. Recent specials have included pan-seared halibut with beet-scented couscous and sauteed trumpet mushrooms and sauteed soft-shell crabs with fingerling potatoes and grilled asparagus. So it's not like they're not trying.
A little menu trimming would help, as would a better menu presentation. Plug Ugly's menu hurt my eyes, and misspellings were distracting. (If you're going to mention him, you should get Edgar Allan Poe's name right.)
But the food may not end up mattering so much at Plug Ugly's, which appears to have won over Canton regulars with its gleaming good looks, comfortable open spaces and welcoming management. The bartenders seem invested in giving customers actual good service, and the friendly wait staff is backed up by an alert bus crew. There's nothing like a clean table and a full water glass to keep your spirits up.
Plug Ugly's has slipped comfortably into the Canton scene, but apart from the burnished atmosphere, there isn't anything that sharply distinguishes it, or the high-spirited crowd that gathers there, from the pack. Notwithstanding some valiant attempts at serious cuisine, Plug Ugly's comes across, like many of its neighbors, as a bar that serves food instead of a serious restaurant that serves beer and liquor.
It's sad to think that the days when a food-forward bistro like Helen's Garden could flourish on the square might be gone. But Plug Ugly's at least is a sign that there's still room for nice tavern owners who take hospitality seriously.
Plug Ugly's Publick House
Where: 2908 O'Donnell St., Canton
Contact: 410-563-8459, http://www.pluguglyspub.com
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$13; entrees, $17-$25
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭ ; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]