Restaurant Review: Ten years later, Roy's is still a destination restaurant

Founded in 1998 by James Beard Award-wining chef Roy Yamaguchi, Roy's has expanded far beyond its original Hawaiian home. There are now more than 30 worldwide.

So yes, Roy's is a chain, but the closest one to the restaurant in Harbor East is 700 miles away, in Chicago, so it's not as though they're falling out of trees around here. I know a few locals who are devoted to it, but it's an obvious asset for the convention and tourism business — Roy's was crowded on a recent weeknight and, taking a wild guess, I'd say that about two-thirds of the diners were out-of-towners.

But what makes Roy's unusual among the chains is the degree of latitude given to the chefs at each restaurant. According to a company spokesman, Roy's chefs are required to carry eight of Yamaguchi's core dishes but are then allowed to create approximately two dozen dishes of their own, so long as they speak in Yamaguchi's Hawaiian fusion vernacular.

This makes a trip to Roy's very interesting, and it makes the arrival of a new chef at the local Roy's an occasion for a fresh review. Patrick "Opie" Crooks joined the Baltimore restaurant in October, replacing longtime chef Rey Eugenio. Although it's not explicitly clear what the core Yamaguchi dishes are, I'm fairly certain that one of Crooks' additions is the Parmesan-encrusted John Dory, served with lobster potato risotto and crab bisque. If so, way to go, Opie.

Now, the John Dory is a funny name for a funny-looking fish, and if it's been on a menu anywhere I've dined, in or out of Baltimore, I didn't see it. Or maybe it just wasn't described they way it was by our thorough, friendly and considerate server. The John Dory is a fish worth seeking out, at least here — it's sweet and firm and holds up extremely well to, first of all, a good pan-frying, and, second, an application of rich and buttery flavors. That lobster potato risotto was plate-licking good, as was the shallow bath of prettifying crab bisque that Crooks devised for the plate.

The Baltimore Roy's opened in 2001, so long ago that Harbor East, the now-thriving neighborhood, didn't even have a name. Roy's curving interior has the kind of understated good looks that don't fade — the open kitchen remains the visual focus of attention. Suitably appointed for romance or business, the main dining room, merrily noisy, gives diners elbow room and soft, flattering lighting to relax in.

The menu comprises, along with a handful of sushi creations, about a dozen each entrees and appetizers or salads. Throughout, there are shrewdly devised combination plates that provide a good introduction to Roy's Hawaiian fusion cuisine. The "Canoe Appetizer for Two" gathers together Szechuan pork ribs (meaty, with subtly smoked-in flavor), blackened ahi (rising above the cliched with a toothsome mustard sauce), sesame shrimp (outfitted with prettily diced vegetables that show the kitchen's attention to detail), spicy tempura tuna roll (one of the very few inert moments of the evening) and fiercely engaging lobster potstickers (so tasty that we ordered an additional serving).

We also liked an appetizer of Roy's Asian-style "fritto misto," a lightly battered and very pretty mix of slipper lobster, calamari and rock shrimp, served with a pair of aioli, one spiked with sriracha, the other a mellow golden curry, and both very effective.

For entrees, samplings of Roy's dishes are combined on three separate, handsomely articulated platters. They do make for a nice introduction, but I think in ordering it, I may have missed some drama — the morning after, I was wishing I'd tried the fire-grilled nairagi with chickpea cassoulet and ancho chimichurri, which I take to be another creation of Crooks'. If it's the equal of the John Dory, I'm even more regretful.

Still, the Roy's Trio and the Shellfish Sampler, the mixed-plate combinations we ordered, were very satisfying, and what the individual elements lack in drama they make up for with precise cooking and manifest freshness. On one of the mixed plates: hibachi-grilled salmon with citrus-ponzu sauce, the blackened ahi (again) and one of Yamaguchi's core creations, butterfish with Hong Kong sizzling oil and soy vinaigrette. On the seafood sampler, seared scallops, stuffed shrimp and a butter-poached lobster tail. What stood out: the shrimp, which are stuffed with a light and whipped shrimp mousse, a gorgeous thing, and the lobster tail, stripped to its exoskeletal essence, and yielding supreme, buttery richness.

Roy's finishes its customers off with an appealing dessert menu, which includes two dishes that diners are advised take a good 20 minutes to prepare; the melting chocolate torte, served with raspberry coulis and vanilla ice cream is infinitely better than the cliche it sounds like. A fine pineapple upside-down cake is served with a scoop of wonderful coconut ice cream. The coffee, even in decaffeinated version, is said to be made from Hawaiian-grown beans.

I wonder if it's the arrival of a new chef that makes Roy's feel like a newcomer. The staffers, with the stray exception of a warmth-challenged bartender, behave as though they're part of something new and exciting. That's the way I felt.


Where: 720 Aliceanna St.

Contact: 410-659-0099,

Hours: Open seven days a week for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $9.95-$16.95

Entrees, $24.95-$32.95

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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