EASTERN SHORE EXPLORATION
THOSE WHO ARE WILLING to tackle the Bay Bridge in its high season are already gone as you read this, Labor Day being the beginning of the end of the tanning season. But for those who look for serenity more than sun, this weekend marks the beginning of the best season on the Eastern Shore, when the days are cooler and the crowds are sparser.
So here is a look at not the famous places past the Bay Bridge-not the Crab Claw and The Bridge-but the less known restaurants, and in particular a guide to ordering a fine meal from a menu that ranges from home-cooking to home-defrosting.
The Eastern Shore is an odd mix of cooking sensitivities. There is where the best of local produce is grown-indeed, there is no better corn than Eastern Shore silver queen, and the melons can compete with France's most revered. The home cooking is legendary, and crab meat is respected right up there with God and country. Yet some of the worst seafood dishes ever to have been ejected from a deep-fryer are routine on the Eastern Shore-and at some of the very same restaurants that serve superlative crab cakes.
In sum, this is a region where it is important not only to know where to eat, but to know what to eat from any particular menu.
The easiest way to find good food, of course, is to look for a sign that says something on the order of, "Chicken BBQ-at Mobil Station." Or watch for a screened shack, or roll down your windows and sniff a charcoal grill.
But that is an unpredictable supply. The next best bet is to turn off Route 50 at Matthewstown Road-left, just past the Roy Rogers-to the RWL Seafood Outlet, which has adjacent to it a restaurant called Treasures of the Deep. (Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10. Phone 301-822-6545. No credit cards.)
It's one of those place that's got to be good. Not only is there a market next door that's well stocked with fresh fish and a tank with live clams and softshells, but even without air conditioning its 15 tables were substantially occupied on one of the hottest Sunday afternoons of the year.
You don't look for glamor in a place where cherrystones on the half shell are $2.50 and oysters are $1.75 a half dozen, or where most platters, from crab cakes to sauteed fresh lobster to stuffed flounder to crab imperial to salmon steaks with dill sauce are under $10. What you find instead is a conglomeration of plaid carpeting and real knotty pine paneling except for the wall that is cinderblock, and menus that serve as placemats. It has a kind of farm-country practicality where in one corner there is a sink, a soap dispenser, a giant trash can topped with a high-kitsch plaster statue, and a tape deck.
Just the kind of place where the fried clams are chewy frozen strips and the rolls are homemade, where there's a salt shaker, a pepper shaker and an Old Bay shaker-and a little plastic cup of cheese spread to go with cellophane-wrapped crackers. Forget the fried scallops, which bounce back from each bite; and remember to ask if there is fresh-that-morning silver queen corn. They may pick the shrimp from the freezer, but you can pick your own fresh fish from the market next door and ask to have it broiled, steamed or fried to your order.
Here are some things you can't go wrong with: Cream of crab soup needs a bit of zest, which you could supply from the condiments on the table and a squeeze of lemon, but it is a nice creamy base packed with superb lump crab. The lump crab cockail, at $4, is bound to be as felicitous a choice, and if the oysters are as good as the cherrystones, they're one of the country's great seafood buys.
Steamed crabs and spiced shrimp are big sellers; there are also steamed hard-shell and soft-shell clams. Look among the daily specials for red crabs-at $9, they were a weighty platter of two giant crabs perfectly steamed and lightly seasoned with Old Bay, half cracked already and easy to extract a great deal of pearly sweet meat. You can also order steamed lobster, for $13.
Among fried seafoods, the crab cakes are not the best on the shore, but they are well seasoned and fresh, if a little heavy. The fried fish is outstanding, lightly and crisply crumbed and fried just long enough. I'd have no truck with the fried shrimp, scallops or clam strips, though I would risk the fried oysters but they weren't in season yet when I visited. It is a big menu, also includes seafood salad, sandwiches and even prime rib. Most interesting are the side dishes-good hush puppies, some reasonably interesting fried cheese sticks, and a list of fresh vegetable that changes not just daily, but is so up-to-the-minute that somebody added "sliced tomatoes" even as we were eating.
The list also includes more than half a dozen homemade desserts, from chocolate cake to four kinds of pie. Now, you may salivate over the thought of homemade blueberry pie, at a mere 75 cents, but the one I tried had thickly gooey insides tasting strongly of sugar and weakly of berries, and its crust was barely cooked but still dry. Save yourself for the apple dumpling. It is swimming in cinnamon-scented juices and blanketed with a vague custard; the apple is juicy and tart, the pastry short enough to crumble under your fork and soak up the syrup. It is huge and wonderful.
This is a bare-bones restaurant where the focal point is the cash register and carryout counter, where they don't take credit cards and they have nothing so fancy as a beer or liquor license. The kitchen is slow and even the ceiling fans could be a little faster. You don't want to go there on a really hot afternoon, or when you're trying to hurry to beat the bridge traffic. But it's just the kind of restaurant you'll want to tell about to those friends who stayed home for the weekend and ate at Wendy's.
The Bay Hundred, right before the bridge to Tilghman Island (Route 33 and Knapps Narrows. 301-886-2622), is far more fashionable, with picture windows overlooking the water and a lobby lined with bookshelves, its windowsills ripening tomatoes even as you wait for a table. Its menu is urban-spring rolls (filled with what tasted like coleslaw), Cajun coconut shrimp (much better), tempura and stir-fried vegetables and several trendy pasta dishes. But it also has just-caught char-grilled fish fillets, perfectly fine crab cakes and-though probably too late to find now-excellent softshells. Prices are decent, with most main dishes under $11 and most wines as well, and service can be excruciatingly slow but seems unwaveringly pleasant. Just keep in mind that no matter how intriguing the mushrooms, parmesan and cream may sound with the fettuccine, a restaurant that cannot spell it may not be any better at making it. Stick to the shore stuff.
Oddly, it is not the seafood that is best at The Narrows, a sprightly pastel-decorated restaurant with a broad porch over the water right past the Kent Narrows Bridge (Open from 11 a.m. daily. 301-827-8113. This two-year-old restaurant serves everything from pork tenderloin with oyster dressing and hollandaise to Lillie Mae's Potato Salad (entrees are about $8 to $17). There seems to be a lot of dross on the menu, though, and the prices are big-city rather than country. Among the fried seafoods, crab cakes are probably the only thing worth ordering at this time of year (which means that the Seafood Platter, a leaden and chewy mix at $17.75, is such a waste of money it could ruin your mood for the weekend). The kitchen does some agreeable daily specials-shrimp wrapped in bacon atop mixed rice and onions one day. The sleeper at The Narrows, though, is the vegetables. There aren't many places in the country where you can find find fried green tomatoes, particularly such good ones and what's more, on a waterfront.