River Watch Restaurant is a rare find: a waterfront restaurant where the food is as good as the view.
The Essex restaurant and its 110-slip marina sit at the spot where Middle River meets Hopkins Creek. During the summer, revelers crowd River Watch's deck for legendary "Sunday Funday" parties overlooking the water.
But River Watch is more than a fun boaters' bar. With a kitchen that turns out careful seafood-oriented dishes and service that is attentive, though sometimes slow, the restaurant is a solid destination any time of year.
Scene On a chilly spring Thursday, River Watch's impressive decks were empty. Inside, a cavernous bar area, complete with a stage for bands, was also nearly vacant, giving the space a quiet feeling of calm before the storm.
In the cozy dining room next to the bar, a few tables were occupied, but we still had our choice of seats by the stone fireplace or next to the sliding glass doors (we chose the doors – and their water view).
Given its name and location, it's no surprise that the menu at River Watch is stacked with seafood, with extra emphasis on crab. In fact, crab is tucked into so many dishes, it's almost hard to avoid.
Appetizer The Eastern Shore appetizer ($10) puts the spotlight on the crustacean, piling sauteed lump crab meat on fried green tomatoes dressed in mustard sauce.
Though some slices of tomato were on the thin side, the tried-and-true combination of crab and tomato was a good one. The kitchen had a careful hand with the crab — it was evenly heated and the lumps stayed intact — and the hand-breaded tomatoes were so crunchy they were noisy.
But the sauce made us sit up and take notice.
A lovely balance between sweet, creamy and tart, the mustard seed-studded sauce was exactly what the dish needed to bridge the gap between the crab's sweetness and the tomatoes' acidity. We loved it — and were thankful for a basket of warm rolls, which we used to sop up the extra sauce.
The success of that first dish raised our expectations for the entrees. Happily, those expectations were met.
Entree Chicken and crab marsala ($19) was a crabby take on the traditional Italian specialty. River Watch's version included nicely cooked chicken and tender mushrooms alongside the crab, all of which was dressed in the classic wine sauce and served with pasta.
In this case, the crab was a pleasant addition, though not a game-changer. The seafood added a touch of sweetness and elegance, but even without it, the entree would have been worth ordering.
The crab was more integral to the Crisfield sandwich ($10), which layered a crab cake with crispy bacon and warm, thin slices of ham.
The simple combination of salty meat and crab cake was a good one. The crab cake was creamy and soft – it almost seemed to melt into the sandwich's Kaiser roll. The bacon's sharp edges and the ham's salty flavor played neatly off the crab.
According to the menu, the Crisfield should come with another layer — melted cheddar. It was missing on our sandwich. While we didn't miss it, sharp cheddar might have been a good addition to the mix.
Some of River Watch's best work was in the details. A simple green side salad ($3) was bright and fresh, built with obvious care. French fries were hand-cut, crispy and not at all greasy. Coffee was freshly brewed — even though we were the only people left in the place — and strong.
Service River Watch's attention to detail left us surprised at the restaurant's one weak spot: timely service. Our waitress was personable and attentive, and we enjoyed our interactions with everyone in the place. But the pacing of the meal was noticeably slow.
At no point did we feel forgotten; it just seemed that everything, from drinks to the food, took a long time to arrive at the table. Eventually, we decided to take the pace in stride, chalking up the speed to the restaurant's lazy riverside location.
Dessert After dinner, scooping up bites of a gargantuan brownie sundae ($5) while nursing a glass of Monkey Bay sauvignon blanc ($8) and a Heineken ($4.25), we relaxed at our table, watching sea gulls flit from piling to piling on the marina's pier.
By the first of June, nights at River Watch won't be so peaceful. But by then, we'll be ready for a whole different kind of evening by the water.
Back Story: William Sullivan, also the owner of the Bowman Restaurant in Parkville, purchased the River Watch Restaurant and its 110-slip marina in 1989; his son Mark and daughter Traci bought the restaurant from him in 2002. At River Watch, the Sullivans focus on tasty seafood-oriented dishes and cater to boaters (and other fun-loving locals) with regular live music and seasonal deck parties.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The Crisfield sandwich, a stack of grilled bacon, ham and crab cake, is a savory twist on the standard crab cake sandwich. The crab cake – sweet and creamy – contrasts neatly with the crispy, salty bacon and ham. Order it on a kaiser roll and opt for River Watch's excellent hand-cut fries instead of chips.
Where: 207 Nanticoke Road, Essex
Contact: 410-687-1422; http://www.riverwatchrestaurant.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
Rating: 2.5 stars
Reservations: AcceptedCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun