A tried-and-true approach to seafood in Annapolis
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 4, 2006
Even if I hadn't spotted Charlie Bauer in the open kitchen at Rockfish, I'd recognize the Annapolis restaurant as the chef's handiwork.
His stamp is everywhere. It's evident at the door, in the quick smile of the hostess, and in the sweeping dining room, where servers discuss wine choices with uncommon fluency. And it's revealed in the menu, which is heavy on seafood, and in the portion sizes, which are as generous as at any steakhouse.
When I close my eyes here, I imagine I'm eating at the nearby O'Learys, the upscale seafood restaurant Bauer co-owned for six years before he parted ways with his business partner to launch Rockfish at the end of 2004. O'Learys has a reputation for good fish (the crab cakes, a waitress there once told me, are "held together by sheer willpower") and a smart staff, which has to pass a rigorous culinary exam to work there. Bauer uses a similar recipe for his new place. Why mess with what's tried and true?
Situated right near the Eastport Bridge, Rockfish is "a good location with a checkered past," according to Bauer, who sank about a million bucks into what had been "a music venue with beer and pool." A glance around the bar (with its massive aquarium) and the adjacent dining room (backed by that exhibition kitchen) shows how the money was spent: stained oak floors, booths wrapped in nubby green fabric, a pressed tin ceiling and slate blue paint on the walls. The space is easy on the eyes, and it will be even more inviting if Bauer's plans to build a rooftop deck are approved by the city. The bill of fare includes something for the ears, too: Wednesday through Saturday nights and at Sunday brunch, Rockfish serves up live music (jazz, blues or rock).
The showy kitchen at Rockfish is about four times the size of the one at O'Learys, which means a longer menu and more variety; a hotter grill translates to crisper crab cakes, and a ceramic oven means diners can order pizza.
I'm a fool for raw oysters, which this kitchen neatly shucks so that the flavor of the sea is all you take in from slurp to slurp. An equally enticing launch is found in thin slices of raw tuna bedded on glistening seaweed (but hold the cloyingly sweet brown dip, please). An Asian accent also surfaces in a snack of meaty chicken wings lapped with a teasing dip that is crunchy with ground peanuts. Nice. The kitchen does well by steamed mussels, piling meaty bivalves in a warm bath that smacks of equal parts citrus and butter.
Listen closely when your server describes an entree special, which tends to be just that. The single best dish I've had at Rockfish involved soft shell crabs from the Carolinas. Plump and sauteed to a delicate crisp, a pair of them appeared with an electric drizzle of avocado cream ramped up with lime juice. Competing for my attention on the plate were a pillow of basmati rice and a crunchy slaw of chayote, jicama and red pepper strips. While the presentation was a bit busy, it was traffic to savor.
From the standing menu surface the usual seafood suspects -- rockfish, halibut, salmon -- with some nice enhancements. Lump crab is scattered atop the rockfish fillet, which gets welcome color from a fine succotash of corn, red pepper and grilled asparagus. And halibut is kept moist beneath a thin cover of corn bread crumbs. Its real asset, though, is the buttery tomato sauce that pools around the fish. Crab cakes are similar to what you find at O'Learys: very good. Jumbo lump crab is bound with eggs and mayonnaise, revved up with coarse mustard and a dash of vanilla, and pan-fried.
The seafood stew known as cioppino isn't gutsy enough for anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting the dish on its home turf in San Francisco; the tomato-and-wine broth merely whimpers when it should belt out a tune. And if turf is your preference, focus on the tender pork ribs, presented with a brick-colored barbecue sauce that is at once sweet and smoky. Grilled rack of lamb, on the other hand, yields surprisingly little flavor and is outperformed by its base of soft white beans, carrots and onion jazzed up with fresh rosemary. Chef Bauer reaches out to the "everyday" crowd with a hamburger and pizzas that are better than fast food, but the pizza is no match for the region's best pies; the most interesting one brings together shrimp, feta cheese and olives on a crisp round of baked dough.
The wine list follows the lead of the menu, offering a little something for every taste -- plenty of familiar labels, good stuff from mostly big producers. But why no pinot noir for less than $50, no merlot under $45? Meanwhile, eight bucks gets a bruncher a "bottomless" bloody mary or mimosa. The pricing doesn't always make sense. As with a lot of upscale restaurants these days, beer gets a half-page of fame at Rockfish, which offers 10 brews on tap, including Belgium's complex Chimay Triple.
Like a steakhouse, this restaurant offers a collection of side dishes to round out a meal. The selections read as if a Southern mama had a hand in their making. Fried green tomatoes are more coating than vegetable, unfortunately, but corn pudding is a model of simple good taste; the surface of the custardy dish is lightly browned, and each kernel of corn bursts with sweetness. Sauteed spinach is a bit bland, but the greens are better for the crunchy pine nuts and dried cranberries mixed in. Green beans take a smoky hit from bacon, and coleslaw is refreshingly sweet with bits of pineapple. All the side dishes are large enough to share.
There's no compelling reason to stick around for the third course. Apple spice cake resembles a muffin you might find behind glass at Starbucks, and an armor of dull pastry entombs the fruit in a blackberry-sour cream croustade. The best offering is probably the sufficiently tart Key lime curd served in a thin cookie shell. Chances are, you'll be too full to forge beyond a second plate of food anyway. (My favorite finish is a walk across the bridge.)
The chef's principal partners in Rockfish are the guys behind three eating establishments in Georgetown's Washington Harbour complex: Cabanas, Nick's Riverside Grille, and Tony and Joe's Seafood Place -- all of which are better known for their drinks and their views than for their cooking. Perhaps that perception will change; Bauer says he has been asked by his teammates to rework the menus of those waterfront restaurants. Even a little Rockfish would go a long way to improving the trio.