For more than two decades, Carrol's Creek Cafe has been an Annapolis favorite. Poised on the edge of Spa Creek in Eastport, it has long been a prime spot for watching sailboat races and the comings and goings of millions of dollars' worth of trophy vessels at nearby marinas -- from the bar, that is. Only four tables in the dining room commanded a clear water view.
Not any more.
A recent million-dollar renovation has given Carrol's Creek Cafe a sleek, new interior -- and every diner a view of the outdoors. The bar has been moved, and in its place are new floor-to-ceiling windows. Dark wooden tables and chairs contrast with light cork walls accented with steel bands. Interesting wall angles and table arrangements, and varied floor levels, allow each diner an unobstructed view. Even the chairs have portholes.
The restaurant's misspelling of the name of a prominent early Maryland family is actually a nod to 18th-century cartography. A 1781 map of the area labels the current Spa Creek as "Carrol's Creek." Overlooking the creek still is the mansion of Declaration of Independence signer John Carroll. It was the creator of the map, entitled "Plan of the Harbour and City of Annapolis with the Encampment of the Light Troops Under Major General Marquis de la Fayette," who made the error.
The view may be the initial attraction at Carrol's Creek, but chef Warren McClain's contemporary American food will keep you coming back. Carrol's Creek has a raw bar and an exemplary version of Maryland crab cakes, but the menu is by no means limited to seafood standards -- or standard preparations.
And there are unexpected amenities, such as the all-too-rare Annapolis commodity of on-site parking, and a well-priced wine list, with good selections between $20 and $40 and several wines by the glass.
The cream of crab soup is superb -- thick and luscious, and rich with lumps of Maryland crab -- but so was a luncheon special crab and asparagus soup with a brilliant saffron cream base. Malpeque oysters are briny and delicious, and the crab and avocado roll is like no standard sushi house California roll you have ever eaten.
Raw bar choices include several varieties of oysters and top neck clams, which on request were steamed to perfection for my squeamish dining partner. The restaurant also offers a grand seafood platter of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp and lobster.
There is a bevy of other starters. Barbecued shrimp, a house specialty, seemed overwrought: plump shrimp wrapped in bacon and then smothered in barbecue sauce. The clean taste of the shrimp and the smoky accent of the bacon were overwhelmed by the sauce. An accompanying cucumber salad was pure simplicity and outshone the shrimp.
There are no such competing flavors in the smoked salmon napoleon. The crisp phyllo leaves, which substitute for the classic pastry, lend more texture than taste to the dish, enhancing the buttery taste of the salmon, which was nicely complemented by a caper and dill creme fraiche sauce.
Unlike too many restaurants where the appetizers offer all the interesting tastes, Carrol's Creek gives as much attention to the main courses, choosing the very best and freshest ingredients, embellishing classic preparations with intriguing new ingredients and adding stunningly good side dishes.
A sea scallop entree is all about contrasting tastes and textures. Fat scallops are seared and placed around a saffron rice cake and a mound of citrusy avocado salsa. A black bean vinaigrette binds it all together. The dish is at once crisp and velvety, rich and bracing.
Even the crab cake platter at Carrol's Creek has been updated. Instead of the ubiquitous french fries and coleslaw, the plump cake is served with garlic mashed potatoes and what are described on the menu as seasonal vegetables. This is an updated and succulent modern-day ratatouille of diced tomato, zucchini, asparagus and yellow squash.
Truffle mashed potatoes are the base for a sauteed free-range chicken breast, and everything is napped with a rich champagne mushroom sauce. Rapini added a slightly-too-bitter counterpoint.
Manager Richard McClure said the restaurant is serving more meat, especially red meat, than ever before. "I don't think people are eating as much red meat at home, so they are eating it in restaurants," he said. Carrol's Creek offers filet mignon (and during a recent lunch visit, that's what everyone around us was eating), Hereford strip loin and rack of lamb, among other meat choices.
But the best dish during two visits was the astonishingly creamy and flavorful mushroom and vegetable risotto. Served overflowing from an acorn squash that is topped by a grilled portobello mushroom, the risotto included bits of asparagus, zucchini and champagne mushrooms and was as good as any served in a top restaurant in Northern Italy.
Desserts include classics such as creme brulee and a dense cheesecake, but chocolate is my passion, and the flourless chocolate cake was warm and moist, with a deep chocolate taste.
Carrol's Creek Cafe 410 Severn Ave., Annapolis, 410-263-8102, reservations recommended. Appetizers at lunch, $5.25-$12; main courses at lunch, $7-$15; appetizers at dinner, $5.25-$35; main courses at dinner, $19-$30. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; brunch buffet, 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sunday; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 3-10 p.m. Sunday. Wheelchair accessible.
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