* (1 star) Stonefish Grill
Boulevard at Capital Centre, 880 Capital Centre Blvd. Largo. 301-333-1600. www.stonefishgrill.com.
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Smoking in bar area only. Metro: Largo Town Center. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $2.95 to $10.95; lunch entrees $8.95 to $19.95; dinner entrees $12.95 to $29.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $50 to $60 per person.
The first thing I notice about Donnell Long are the five thumb-size devices that dangle from his neck and splay across his chest on a fan of lanyards. It turns out that Long, executive chef of Stonefish Grill, relies on this series of compact computer flash drives to organize his food-related projects. There's one drive for developing recipes and another for a cookbook that's in progress. "I believe in bold, spicy flavors where I push the envelope," says the chef, who favors tongue-tickling Cajun seasoning. Then there is a drive for a culinary program for Prince George's County students, as well as a television series that he's planning. The last flash drive, he says, is thus far "just for bling."
His ultimate goal is to be the next Emeril Lagasse -- the ubiquitous (bam!) celebrity chef from New Orleans. "You have to dream big," says Long, a 34-year-old District native who says he was abandoned in a parked car when he was 3 years old and raised in foster care. "I came from nothing and turned my life around."
In January, he opened the family-friendly yet sophisticated Stonefish -- which is owned by the Chicago-based Restaurant Development Group (the company also owns the Red Star Tavern chain, a branch of which is next door) -- "for the high-end clientele in Mitchellville, Lake Arbor and Woodmoor who have been ignored," says Long, who last cooked at McCormick & Schmick's in Baltimore. "There was plenty of fried chicken and Southern food but no top-notch seafood restaurant around here." The busy Boulevard at Capital Centre -- a Main Street-style mall near FedEx Field and the Largo Town Center Metro stop, and a short stroll from the 12-screen Magic Johnson Theatres -- was a promising spot.
On a steamy Tuesday evening at 9, the 140-seat restaurant is nearly full. It doesn't feel that way, though. This is no sardine can. Like a discount retailer, Stonefish Grill is big and boxy. "It's so nice to have room around tables and be able to carry on a conversation," says one of my dining companions, who is more familiar with the city squeeze of Logan Circle. With a soaring ceiling, soft lighting and an unobtrusive sound system, Stonefish has a calming effect. Diners can take the time to appreciate the attractive nautical decor, the soft Tuscan colors, and the rich dark woods that frame and separate the seating areas. In fair weather there are 20 additional seats, under market umbrellas, on an inviting front patio.
If you like to start the evening with a cocktail, you are in luck. Yes, there's a short list of affordable, drinkable wines by the glass or bottle, if you so choose. But a big part of the appeal here is the far longer menu of 32 specialty drinks. A Mango Passion Kiss is exceptionally refreshing, with the fragrance of seductive passion fruit and a spike of spiced rum. A strong, tart margarita, made with premium Patron Gold tequila, comes impressively presented in a weighty tumbler. Can't decide what to drink? The favorite, the bartender tells me, is the minty and tart mojito, which has nothing on what you'd find in Havana but is delicious nonetheless.
After two weeknight dinners and a weekend lunch, I've found that this kitchen uses, for the most part, fine ingredients, such as prime seafood and select vegetables, but that not everything succeeds. That fresh fish is, more often than not, overcooked. Similar heapings of haricots verts and creamy garlic mashed potatoes show up on too many plates. And there often is too much salt or too much sugar or too much of both.
That said, the appetizer list includes some welcome options. My favorite starter is the lightly coated coconut fried shrimp, which is one of the best renditions of this dish I have tasted, despite the under-ripe fruit in the salsa; the accompanying sweet-and-sour dipping sauce favors the former. A zestier sauce, this one tomato-based, comes with the four meaty and good-size broiled crustaceans in the jumbo shrimp appetizer. A creamy, savory dip made with lightly smoked trout, to be scooped up with very buttery slices of baguette, would be great for a party -- and it comes in a portion big enough for a crowd. I would pass on the heavy crab bread, which tastes mostly of goopy melted cheese rather than crab. But an iron skillet, the handle neatly wrapped in a crisp black napkin, is a glorious showcase for a fluffy dome of crusted cornbread, the edges beautifully browned. Unfortunately, it was a tad too sweet and made more so by a topping of honey-laced butter.
For lunch, the club sandwich of lightly blackened salmon and thick-cut smoky bacon is first-rate, the toasted bread moistened just enough with a mayonnaise-based dressing. The entire plate is heaped with excellent house-made potato chips. In a salute to Louisiana, a po' boy sandwich on a soft roll, filled with succulent blackened catfish, hits the right spot. On the lighter side, the Caesar salad is just adequate, with romaine leaves lightly tossed with an inoffensive dressing and then topped with relatively flavorless Parmesan cheese. For a few dollars more, you can add a few strips of spicy blackened chicken, salmon or catfish, and, as Emeril would say, "kick it up a notch." A salad of fried green tomato slices and blackened shrimp atop a crisp mesclun lettuce mix is marred only by too much of the really nice tomato-horseradish dressing. And if you order the plump, fresh-tasting crab cakes, made with jumbo lump meat and an acceptable amount of filler, it's easy to remember that Chesapeake Bay is not far away.
The service staff is enthusiastic but could use more training. One evening, a waitress brings our appetizers and, a minute later, the entrees, turning the table into an over-the-top seafood buffet for four. Every few minutes she's back asking, "Is everything okay?" Then she brings the check in the middle of the meal without regard to whether dessert or coffee is in the offing. But what the waiters and waitresses lack in polish they make up in friendliness. Everyone puts on a happy face.
In the entree category, simple is best. Lightly seasoned or blackened portions of grilled, broiled or pan-fried fish or shellfish are safe bets. And for those who don't care for things that swim, there are also a New York strip steak and grilled pork chops on the menu. If you must, the best of the four desserts is the warm pecan pie, drizzled with caramel. Even that isn't really worth the calories. I'd spend them, instead, next door at the Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop.
Still, the relaxed atmosphere of Stonefish makes it a great place for a quick crab cake and cocktail before a movie or after hitting the stores in the mall. And chef Long tells me there is plenty of memory available on his flash drives for the menu additions that he's dreaming up.
Walter Nicholls is a reporter for The Post's Food section. Tom Sietsema is on assignment.