Restaurant Review: Waterfront Kitchen delivers a ravishing new dining space

The Waterfront Kitchen, a lovely and rewarding new Fells Point restaurant, is a model of sophisticated understatement. A straightforward and compact "spirited American dining" menu is being executed with quiet precision by chef de cuisine Levi Briggs and served by a polite and informed staff.

This is old-fashioned dining — quiet and leisurely. You'll want to bring people here, if you can find it. Let's get our bearings.

We're on a jutting tip of Fells Point, at the water's edge, on the ground floor of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Museum's education pavilion. The multipurpose building, designed for the Living Classrooms Foundation, came equipped with a spare-and-scrubbed cafe space whose original tenant (to use a maritime phrase) avoided detection.

The space sat empty for a while until late October, when Charles Nabit and Michael Klein opened the Waterfront Kitchen after a $1.5 million renovation to the space by Patrick Sutton Interior Design.

The dining room is quietly stunning. It takes a while to absorb how astute and really rather brave Sutton's design is, how it works with the industrial structure and especially the way it patiently guides focus to the 35-foot expanse of glass overlooking the water. Warm lighting and soft curtains relieve the hard wood surfaces. Warm coppers, creams and tans dominate the palette. There are, we can all be thankful, no nautical motifs.

A companion, paying what is the highest compliment one can give a design team, says it looked like they really hadn't done anything at all. Knowing when to stop is the sign of a true artist, and it's an increasingly rare quality in a chef, too.

Although he holds no title at Waterfront Kitchen, chef Jerry Pellegrino was a consultant for the restaurant's menu and wine program. The charming wine list reads like an invitation to share Pellegrino's personal collection, and the opening menu is admirably restrained and coherently organized. It consists of 10 or so appetizers, along with a half-dozen entrees. A separate section lists choices for the grill, which can be ordered with sauces or topped with foie gras or crab imperial. There are no small plates, and there is little of the flamboyant, or the unusual, on the menu, which sticks closely but not zealously to the locally sourced and seasonally appropriate.

The kitchen wants you, certainly, in early November, to enjoy the real fall flavors of beef, oysters and leafy greens. But they wouldn't mind if you noticed the black-truffle jus gracing the roasted Maryland rockfish or the tomato court-bouillon flavoring the heads-on shrimp.

These are the evening's best moments, overt yet modest reminders that a chef matters. The evening's triumph is the rockfish, a beauty, served with roasted potatoes and caramelized cippolini onions. The fish tastes clean and wild, with no muddy traces, its skin crisped. But it'd be a bore without the black truffle jus, which brings the whole plate to life. Similarly, poaching beautifully treated heads-on shrimp in tomato broth doesn't disguise their flavor, it enhances it.

A salmon appetizer combines alchemy with home economics. Cured with beet juice, the salmon turns into strips of ruby. This fanciness is garnished with good, plain things — chopped eggs, pickled wax beans and celery.

The meal's few disappointments come when the kitchen turns shy. A herbed winter vegetable soup has the bland flavors and homely looks of Moosewood-era cooking. The mashed celery root accompanying the shrimp dish is dull as blazes.

However, this reserve works just fine when applied to a fine Chincoteague oyster soup, which impresses with its modest, measured seasoning, or delicious rib-eye steak, which works by being a very good piece of marbled beef.

The small dessert list these nights includes a lovely little apple molasses cake and a pretty chocolate pate topped with the colorful candied seeds you get when you're leaving Indian restaurants.

Everything's promising. Still to come are the warm nights of spring, when Waterfront Kitchen will serve diners on an outdoor deck, and the long days of summer, when the evening views will make diners lose their minds.

Waterfront Kitchen

Where: 1417 Thames St., Fells Point


Hours: Dinner daily and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$18; entrees, $16-$42

Food: 3 stars

Service: 3 stars

Atmosphere: 4 stars

[Key: Outstanding: 4 stars; Good: 3 stars; Fair or Uneven: 2 stars; Poor: 1 star]

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