The Point is a pleasant surprise

The large upstairs dining room at the Point in Fells doesn't get many takers on a weeknight. It's a fine, handsome, timber-ceilinged room, and if you can find a prettier water view on the East Coast than the one from these windows, please tell me.

This is the space formerly known as Miss Irene's, and most people still want to stay downstairs, gathered in the bar area, in the company of friends and strangers. Down there has the upscale good looks of a place that serves, if you're lucky, a fried-up pile of calamari, a decent hamburger and a slice of cheesecake from a box. And the wait staff, friendly guys dressed in polos and shorts, look ready to bring them to you.

Instead, they bring a scallop ceviche bathed in the bracingly tart juices of ruby red grapefruit, a brilliant bistro steak topped with a fried quail egg and a dreamy lemongrass-scented crème caramel. The Point in Fells is the most pleasant surprise this year.

Jacob Raitt is the young and talented chef here, and he has been given room to explore, to imagine and to learn. His dinner menu is a compact but harmonious arrangement of fresh and appealing ideas, and because he has the skills to back up his imagination, what sounds appealing on the page comes through on the plate, often better.

Something happened during this review dinner that hardly ever does: We disagreed with one another. Not everyone admired the ceviche's tartness, but those who did are now devoted to it. The cabbage that accompanied a Muscovy duck breast was braised with too much cinnamon, some thought, or exactly enough, thought others. And the obligatory ranking of appetizers and entrees, usually an exercise in stating the obvious, was nearly contentious.

Of course, it's easier to astonish customers who have lowered expectations. The casual attitude and atmosphere is only part of that. The sad demise of Miss Irene's played like a cautionary tale to anyone wanting to bring fancy food to this end of Fells Point, and when it closed, desperately disguised as Poe Boys, it felt like a permanent shuttering. (Worst of all, it made the neighborhood's legendary naysayers appear suddenly gifted with common sense.)

New owners arrived in the spring, though, and their first public act was to reveal a new name — the Point in Fells — that was both scarily bland and practically un- Google-able. Frankly, we worried.

But then the Point opened, quickly, after some minor but shrewd adjustments were made to the sprawling multistory complex, and it appears to have opened with the ideal chef. A graduate of Baltimore International College, Raitt has chosen his apprenticeship kitchens well — Salt's with Jason Ambrose and Bistro Blanc's with Mark Dixon — and his training comes through. Meat is tender, sauces speak clearly. Evidence of careful prep work is everywhere, from the hand-cut linguini in a seafood pasta salad to the slice of candied lemon atop the braised pork belly.

Full plating seems to be coming back in style, and it's a good move. I like having the chef consider which sides work best with a bistro fillet (a yummy Yukon potato hash and spears of green and white asparagus) or slices of Muscovy duck breast (cinnamon-stout braised cabbage and a classic potato gratin). A seafood pasta worked so well because the kitchen tossed the linguini, arctic char and heads-on shrimp by hand, finishing the display with a ring of mussels.

We were taken in, utterly, by a trompe l'oeil effect in an appetizer of pan-seared scallops, served with chili-dusted plantains, mango chutney and coconut aioli. It makes a lovely presentation, with the five scallops arranged in a long row, but we pointed out to the waiter that the kitchen had hadn't plated the plantains. No, the waiter pointed out, two of those five scallops are plantains. Oh.

Occasional glitches are mostly innocuous. A summer salad of red and yellow watermelon, chambord cherries and bleu cheese would have stayed prettier longer if it had been drained before plating. The mussels on that beautiful pasta salad had cooled off too much, a matter of timing.

But even when a dish didn't work at all, we were still interested. Placed in a red pepper "soup," a parfait of blue crab, cucumber and avocado looks so refreshing, but there was an offness to the flavors, at least this time, and this fragile combination might need more careful monitoring.

Desserts are made in house, and, for now, Raitt is the pastry chef, too. There are the modest pleasures of that crème de caramel, with its subtly applied lemongrass notes, and more robust pleasure in a hand-crafted strawberry shortcake, which Raitt assembles from fresh muffin-like bread and homemade whipped cream.

And at the end of such a satisfying dinner, you're still left wondering: Is this all going to work? I hope so. The staff appears loyal and needs just a bit more pre-dinner menu cramming — it will be up to them to sell Raitt's more frolicsome dishes.

The owners have talked about including on the menu a few more basic, meat-and-potatoes dishes, at least on weekends. Good weather will help every restaurant in Baltimore but especially a place like the Point, where attractive outdoor seating can help draw in curious new customers.

The Point in Fells

Where: 1738 Thames St., Fells Point

Contact: 410-327-7264

Appetizers: $10-$12

Entrees: $18 - $22

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

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

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