Behind Fanciful Facade, A First-Rate Restaurant
By Nancy Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006
The big blue neon fish sign outside the Big Fish Grille Steak and Fish House on Route 3 in Crofton is certain to catch your attention. It's not quite as garish as those "two-headed alligator" signs that dotted major Southern highways in the 1950s, but it's certainly in that vein.
While the payoff at those long-ago roadside attractions seldom met expectations, the Big Fish Grille is just the opposite. There is a first-rate restaurant tucked behind the wavy neon on the facade, a locally owned original.
Owned by the same people who added Yellowfin Steak and Fish House to the banks of the South River in Annapolis, the Big Fish Grille, open since May, has become a major destination for the grab-a-bite-after-work crowd, as well as those seeking a more substantial dining experience.
Architecturally, the Big Fish Grille interior displays what is becoming the quintessential neighborhood restaurant design: A bar area fills the center of the space, with tables and banquettes arrayed around it. Here, there is a long bar that overlooks an open kitchen as well as long, high communal tables that are perfect for gathering a gang from the office. Separating the bar and the dining areas are schools of colorful papier-mache fish, which are suspended over the low wall that defines the lounge area.
The walls are watery blue, the banquettes black and comfortable. White cloths cover the tables, accented with black napkins. This isn't just another grimy old crab place; it's an upscale dining spot.
And it's welcoming. The servers are attentive without being flip, and everyone seems to smile. There is a well-chosen wine list, and about two dozen selections are available by the glass.
The menu, under the direction of chef Keith Kerner, is far ranging, covering many of the latest trends, including sushi and small plates. A lot of attention is given to each dish, from the presentation to the fully rounded flavors. The good things begin with the bread, soft puffs of warm, yeasty rolls that arrive soon after you are seated.
The list of starters is long, but you would be remiss not to try one of the crab soups. The crab bisque is rich and creamy, a large portion with a generous amount of sweet lump crab meat. This dish can stand against the most famous crab-house version. The Big Fish Grille's Maryland-style crab soup is even better -- it's the best I've had anywhere in the area. This spicy tomato-based soup is so packed with vegetables and lump crab that it is almost a crab gumbo. By comparison, the French-style onion soup is flavorful, but no match for the crab duo.
The kitchen also displays a deftness with appetizers: Coconut shrimp are crunchy on the outside and succulent within; sweet chili citrus shrimp are plump and bright tasting, complemented by the orange-accented sauce; flash-fried calamari are tender and greaseless, and the serving is large enough for a main course. Only the seared tuna appetizer was disappointing; the fish was perfectly seared, but it was served so cold that it had no taste.
The restaurant offers a selection of fresh fish -- wild rockfish, Canadian salmon, Gulf grouper and others -- that can be prepared several different ways, such as blackened or with teriyaki sauce. And there is a selection of steaks that makes good on the restaurant's name as a steak and fish house.
But, again, crab steals the show. The crab cakes are nearly the size of tennis balls, gentle mounds of sweet lump crab that need no adornment (and aren't marred by any stray bits of shell). A pasta dish of orzo and lobster meat is also stellar. And a piece of grilled salmon, topping a Caesar salad, is a study in simplicity, though I thought the salad itself needed more punch of anchovies.
For dessert, the cheesecake can't be beat.
The Big Fish Grille also serves a full Sunday brunch and offers half-price appetizers in the bar during happy hour every day.