When I learned that Todd Conner's had opened in the location where the sports bar Slammers and the Tex-Mex cafe Armadillo's were previously, I saw it as another sign that Fells Point is indeed becoming more gentrified. But then I ate there, and I'm not so sure.
Owners Nikki Popovich and her partner, Michael "Reds" Cassidy, have done their best to create a warm, friendly neighborhood dining room with a hip vibe. The small room has its own entrance, or you can go through the bar. The wooden floors look newly refinished. The room has been freshly painted in shades of cream and grayish-green, colors taken from the large painting that dominates one wall. Diamond-shaped mirrors add sparkle.
A wooden bench is lined with throw pillows set on an angle so they reflect the shape of the mirrors. It runs along one wall and forms the seating for a row of tables. The furniture is sleek and black, but fresh flowers and candles soften the spare lines of the room.
What makes me wonder if Fells Point is really so gentrified is that this pretty dining room was empty except for us the whole evening, while the bar in front got rowdier and rowdier.
There are only two things wrong with the dining room. First, on chilly nights the dining room entrance is going to let in a blast of cold air. Second, there's a room directly off the dining room with noisy swinging doors, and the staff bang in and out continually. It gets to be incredibly annoying.
If we had been there on a Wednesday, I'm sure the restaurant would have been busier. Wednesday is Neighborhood Night, and if you can prove you live in the neighborhood, you get 25 percent off your check. Even on other nights, the cost of your meal won't be outrageous. The menu is small, with a focus on bar food and sandwiches, but there are some excursions into fine dining territory, like the Thames Street Tuna with greens, Asian vinaigrette, sauteed snap peas and wasabi smashed potatoes. Most everything is less than $20.
What's best about Todd Conner's food can be summed up in one word: fried.
This started with the basket of hot, crisp and deliciously greasy homemade potato chips that arrived at the beginning of the meal instead of bread, and ended with homemade cheesecake wrapped in phyllo dough and deep-fried.
When our waitress mentioned that the chips would be even better with the crab dipping sauce with red pepper, we ordered some and it came with even more chips.
The appetizer special was crisp, gold strips of portobello mushroom fried in a tempura batter with a creamy onion dip.
Wings are a specialty, in so many varieties that to list them would be tedious; but both the barbecue version and the regular "medium" (fiery but not overwhelmingly so) -- deep fried of course -- were as good as wings get.
Finally, the crunchy-edged waffle fries that come with entrees were a highlight of our dinner.
The one real exception to the fried rule was Todd's Tuna Bites, cubes of ahi tuna seasoned with Cajun spices, broiled but still rare inside. The wasabi cucumber sauce was the best of all the dipping sauces we tried; I'd get it with anything on the menu.
Just about everything that was wrong with our meal can be summed up with one word: overcooked.
The signature crab cakes, with enormous lumps of crab, the right amount of seasoning and very little else, were dry (what a waste), but not as dry as the salmon fillet, which was supposedly served with "a slight pink interior." Its citrus glaze tasted a bit like marmalade, but I wouldn't have minded that so much if the fish had been properly cooked.
The Chef's Red Meat Selection, a sirloin steak ordered medium rare, came well-done. The mashed potatoes with it were OK, but its mixed vegetables were mostly squash. (This wasn't true on other plates.) We wanted to try the homemade coleslaw, but our waitress told us there was none -- the produce delivery wouldn't be in until the next day.
Perhaps the strangest dish of the evening was the pasta special, Carne Penne, a sort of pasta bolognese by way of Mexico. The jury is still out on that one.
TC's, as it's called on the menu, could end up being a good neighborhood hangout. The folks who run it couldn't be nicer, and the problems we had with our meal were easy fixes. Still, next time I'd focus more on the sandwiches and bar food, and leave the more high-falutin' dishes to other kitchens.