Fells Point, a waterfront neighborhood, has had a historic shortage of good seafood restaurants. There are one or two very good high-end choices, but the casual options are meager and the mid-range options non-existent.
Here comes Thames Street Oyster House, which in the few weeks since its opening has been drawing a steady stream of customers. Part of the instant success at Thames Street has to do with the popular owner, Candace Beattie, who developed a following behind the bar at nearby Alexander's.
But mostly, it's because Thames Street is filing a niche, and nicely. The raw bar program is a major neighborhood improvement, and executive chef Eric Houseknecht has come up with a menu that's a model of mid-range dining, with just enough flair to engage serious diners but plenty of homespun and casual options, too, including burgers, po'boys and New England scallop and lobster rolls.
You know you're a hit when the staff of other restaurants comes to yours on their night off. Walk by Thames Street Oyster House, and you might see Baltimore top chefs gathered at one of the front bar's high tables, slurping oysters, gorging on mussels and savoring main courses like bouillabaisse, lobster-and-crab risotto, cast-iron crab cakes with horseradish potato salad.
The setting works. Beattie converted a two-story Fells Point storehouse with a great deal of taste and reserve. It's handsome, with an especially effective use of black-and-white tile on the main floor, but mercifully free of ye olde oyster house bric-a-brac. The sweet, sun-dappled backyard courtyard, a big draw, is a reminder of how scarce serenity is in Fells Point.
There are other dining options at Thames Street, including a quiet and shipshape upstairs dining room, where a few tables have spectacular views of the water. When it gets too cold for the courtyard, more people will want to sit up there. The least nice option might be at the raw bar itself, which unfortunately doubles as yet another draw for Fells Point boozers, who squeeze out the gentlefolk.
Harsh? Maybe, but the raw bar offerings at Thames Street are exemplary, even exciting. Oysters rarely seen in Baltimore like Rome Point (R.I.) and Blackberry Point (Prince Edward Island) are displayed beautifully, alongside novelties like Jonah crab claws and giant quahogs. I like the smartly designed tick cards, and I love how the oysters you order are laid out in a pattern corresponding to your tick marks. It's a lot easier than it sounds. Consider ordering a chef's selection of raw bar items in the form of elaborate "shellfish towers" — the Queen Anne or the Lord Baltimore, $45 and $63.
The crab skillet, listed on a brief bar menu, is a Baltimore restaurant rarity, a crab dip actually worth ordering. Houseknecht's savory Parmesan version is luxurious and peppery, served with golden-toasted bread brought in from Washington's Bakery de France.
Move on to the crispy Point Judith calamari, which arrive very warm from their frying and crispy, freshly tossed with garlic, parsley and hot peppers. A squeeze of lemon was all they needed. A spicy tomato-and-beer broth was the star in a big bowl of braised clams, chorizo and sweet onions, another reason to enjoy the good, warm bread.
Sandwiches and seafood rolls, served with seasoned boardwalk-style fries or a vinegary cucumber salad, are good weeknight options. The tartar sauce on a jam-packed scallop roll and the remoulade sauce on an oyster po'boy have actual flavor, as though they've been truly made in-house. The seafood itself is fried to a light crunch, the rolls are good and hard, and the lettuce and tomato are fresh and pretty. It's so easy to make a good sandwich, but so few places care to.
A grilled mahi sandwich, with avocado and hot yellow peppers, is a reasonable non-fried sandwich option, but mahi feels out of place on the menu, almost a distraction. I thought the same about an entree of grilled skirt steak with beet relish and chimmichurri, but maybe wouldn't have if it hadn't been the only bad thing I tried at Thames Street. The steak was flavorless, and the dish was ugly as beets.
There are better options. Block Island scallops, which placed perfectly seasoned and deftly grilled scallops in a succotash of fresh corn, English peas and sweet peppers, is a big winner, an artful composition of colors, textures and tastes, seasoned smartly and cooked well.
Dessert is homemade, and very good. Bread pudding, which has morphed into cake at other restaurants, looks like it was made from real bread. It's served plain, with a caramel sauce on the side. An apple cobbler, served with ice cream, is a simple pleasure, all the better for its New England reserve.
Thames Street Oyster House looks solid.
Thames Street Oyster House
Where: 1728 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 443-449-7726, http://www.thamesstreetoysterhouse.com
Hours: Open for dinner daily and for lunch Wednesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$12 Entrees, $17.50-$27
[Key: Outstanding:¿¿¿¿ ; Good: ¿¿; Fair or Uneven: ¿¿; Poor: ¿]
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