The Rusty Scupper is celebrating its 30th anniversary on the south side of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The restaurant says that all told, it's served more than 1.7 million crab cakes, 780,000 pounds of jumbo lump crab meat and 156,000 dozen oysters.
If you personally can't account for more than, say, one or two of those crab cakes, you're probably in good company with many other Baltimore diners, who long ago stopped showing up at the Rusty Scupper. When I told friends and colleagues I was reviewing the Rusty Scupper, the common response was, "Well, good luck to ya; at least you'll have a nice view."
First of all, let's talk about that view, a panoramic one that sweeps from the Inner Harbor promenade to the Domino Sugars factory. It's not just a nice view. It's awesome. And if this by now familiar view has grown stale to you, it's bracing to see it with fresh eyes, the way a visitor would. It makes you proud.
The nice surprise, though, was how shipshape and attractive the Rusty Scupper's dining room looks, even apart from the view. The wood floors gleam, the carpeting is spotless. Tables are set with crisp white linen and cobalt-blue glassware, which combine with the room's timbered ceilings for a nautical effect without overdoing it. Live piano music adds to the room's relaxing atmosphere.
And here's another bonus: The food these days at the Rusty Scupper is thoroughly decent, and sometimes even better. If it doesn't all add up to make the Rusty Scupper a destination seafood restaurant, it's certainly better than the tourist fare you might assume it offers.
The menu is a crafty combination of Rusty Scupper classics, the shellfish patters, stuffed shrimp and crab cakes that have been there from the start, and more contemporary offerings, relatively speaking, like simple grilled fish, Cajun tuna cakes and rockfish piccata. It's still a conservative menu, with broad appeal, but you can see the effort chef Mark Miranda has taken to inch its cuisine forward.
Backing him up is a hardworking front-of-house staff that appears trained to read diners' cues. I appreciated not being peppered with constant interruptions to my dinner. And, for what seems like the first time in ages, our server waited to ask us about dessert until after he cleared away our entrees. That's been driving me bonkers lately.
It could be that I set the bar too low going in. After all, this isn't what you'd call a cheap date. Most entrees are in the $20 range, with items topping out at $45 (surf and turf) and $49 (a New York strip steak). But never did I feel like the Rusty Scupper was idling or going through the motions.
There are little things the Rusty Scupper does that instill hope in a diner, like the garlic-almond butter it serves with warm focaccia and the fresh string beans and grated carrots it serves with the entrees. I liked seeing soft-shell crabs on a special menu — as an entree, sandwich and, as a simple and very agreeable appetizer, a whale-sized, beer-battered soft-shell served in the Rusty Scupper's proprietary Delmarva sauce. An appetizer of Parmesan-breaded calamari comes off well, but the plate-filling swirl of tomato coulis and Parmesan-pepper aioli borders on overproduction.
It was good to see rockfish on the list of Today's Catch, along with Choptanks and Delaware Bays among the oyster selection. That's a good local touch, and so is the Rusty Scupper's participation in the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Recovery Partnership.
Among the evening's high points was char-grilled, bacon-wrapped trout, served in a bright lemon-butter sauce with vegetables and wild rice. And, from the Rusty Scuppers Classic section, the bouillabaisse is a superbly satisfying, if oversized, entree — a rich saffron tomato broth filled with good, clean mussels, scallops, scrod and shrimp.
The Rusty Scupper is capable of letting you down. This happens when the cuisine becomes overly conservative and bland. I was disappointed by its crab cake, which came along with three stuffed shrimp on a broiled shellfish platter. The crab cake has the negligible taste I associate with imported crab meat, a sort of textured tastelessness. That's too bad, and the stuffed shrimp don't have much more flavor. The National Bohemian-battered scrod is a flop, with no crunch and minimal seasoning.
Dessert feels phoned in, too: the usual selection of Key lime pie, New York cheesecake and chocolate indulgence. Skip dessert, I'd say. Instead, you could take a stroll around the Inner Harbor, which you might have decided to love again.
The Rusty Scupper is not for everybody. It is expensive, and there are Baltimore diners who would rather patronize a locally owned establishment and one they associate with authentic Baltimore dining. There are even some who insist that visitors to Baltimore should prefer the same thing. That's bogus. Some diners just want dinner, and a thriving tourism industry depends on professionally run places like the Rusty Scupper.
The Rusty Scupper
Where: 402 Key Highway, Inner Harbor
Contact: 410-727-3678, http://www.selectrestaurants.com/rusty
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$16; entrees, $23-$49
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]