With surfboards, fish and kites decorating the walls and ceiling, Reter's Crabhouse puts you in the mood for a beach blanket banquet.
The Reisterstown seafood restaurant, which opened 14 years ago and later expanded because of popular demand, has a casual scene that Jimmy Buffet would be proud of.
Even our bubbly, enthusiastic waitress seemed to fit the mood. She told us the specials as she took our drink orders, and gave us plenty of time to peruse the packed menu. Ultimately, it was the uneven food that kicked a little sand in our face.
The menu at Reter's is a long list of crab shack favorites. For us, crabs were an easy choice. After ordering our meal, we relaxed with one of the best crab feast drinks: cold beer.
We tried out Kona Brewing Co.'s Longboard lager ($6.99), which was on draft, and Kona's Fire Rock Pale Ale ($3), which was bottled. The lager came in a large (23-ounce) mug, which got us excited — until the first sip. Flat and watery, this beer couldn't put up a fight against the seasoning of the crabs. The tasty pale ale, on the other hand, was bright and hoppy enough to stand up to the salty spice mixture.
The crabs, which are purchased from various places around the U.S., arrived rocket-hot and steamed enough so the meat came out of the shell easily. And our waitress thought to bring us some ramekins of cider vinegar and drawn butter for dipping. This tandem shouldn't be used every time you eat a nugget of sweet crab, but it's nice to dunk the crabmeat in the vinegar and then coat it with a little butter for a MacGyver-like vinaigrette.
At $66 a dozen for larges, the crabs were a little expensive for our taste. By comparison, a dozen large crabs is $50 at LP Steamers, $60 at Bo Brooks and $49 at Capt. James.
We had to make room at the table for the starters, since they came out before we finished eating the crabs. It was slightly frustrating, but what's a little crab seasoning between appetizers?
The grilled Cajun shrimp ($8.99) were a treat. Coated with a blackened seasoning and grilled wonderfully, they were great by themselves and had no need of the weak "Cajun dipping sauce" that accompanied them.
A dozen Blue Point oysters ($21) from the northwest Long Island Sound in Connecticut were bland. This is not unexpected, considering it was August when we ordered them, but they also were not shucked well. The bivalves had more than a few shell pieces and no oyster liquor (the briny liquid inside the shell).
After the shrimp and crabs, a cavalcade of mediocre — at best — dishes came out. The hush puppies ($2.69) were fine, though covered in powdered sugar; an odd choice for a traditionally savory dish.
Though topped with bacon bits (which make nearly everything better), the Lobster roll ($14.99), a traditional New England sandwich of lobster salad on a hot dog bun, was mushy and flavorless. The lump crab cake ($14.99) was an infuriatingly small five ounces and poorly seasoned.
The surf and turf burger ($12.99) brought together beef and crab meat. The meaty burger was delicious and full of charred goodness, which overpowered the delicate crab. Reter's knows how to cook a good burger, though — the patty was by-the-book medium rare.
The desserts also had their share of shortcomings. The key lime pie was bright and limey, but also gritty from either under-bloomed gelatin or sugar that was not properly dissolved.
The chocolate Reese's cup peanut butter pie was deliciously decadent, with lots of chocolate, peanut butter and a generous sprinkling of mini Reese's cups. Although good, it seemed out of place as an end to a summertime seafood meal.
After our visit, it's clear Reter's knows how to do shrimp and crabs, which were both spot-on. But Reter's should take a second look at some of its other, more elaborate dishes.
Back-story: A local favorite for 14 years, Reter's expanded 7 years ago and now offers a wide variety of food.
Parking: There is plenty of parking around the Landmark Shopping Center parking lot.
Signature dish: Coated with a blackened seasoning and grilled wonderfully, the grilled Cajun shrimp were a treat.
Where: 509 Main St., Reisterstown
Contact: 410-526-3300, reterscrabhouse.com
Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]