Table Talk: A watershed moment for Ocean City's dining scene

The culinary tides are shifting in Ocean City.

New this year is the intriguing Bombora, which features "contemporary world cuisine infused with Asian and Latin flavors." On the appetizer menu: a ceviche trio and a Thai green curry-spiked tuna tartare. For entrees, sour orange skirt steak and grilled Hawaiian spearfish. And yes, there's a crab cake — served with baby vegetables and a tamarind tartar sauce.

Bombora has taken over the Beach Plaza Hotel space that for decades was Phillips by the Sea. Bombora is a Phillips project, too, although that fact is barely mentioned. Bombora isn't the first forward-looking restaurant to hit Ocean City. There are others among the sub shops and seafood buffets.

Down there on an assignment for the Sunday Travel section ("100 Best Beach Eats"), I went with a list in hand. Colleagues and friends had given me their recommendations. I knew to check out Liquid Assets, a wonderfully expansive wine store, martini bar and ace cafe. In terms of layout, size and comfort, there's not a real parallel in Baltimore, although I wish there were. I had a good look but unfortunately not a taste of the Cuban-style Deluxe Grilled Cheese, a ciabbata beauty stuffed with capicola, pulled pork, cornichons and provolone.

But I had my best luck asking, "Where should I go next?" Ocean City can feel like a town colonized by bartenders, and I loved meeting people who had come here one summer and stayed forever. My Sunday-morning bartender at Bayside Skillet started working there 20 years ago and now has a crepe named after her. I heard there, in hushed voices, about Grove Market, a tiny little restaurant back across the Assawoman Bay in Bishopville where people fight for reservations. "You'll pass a trailer park," a stranger told me, "but keep going."

I drove over for a peek at Grove Market. The dining room and kitchen are housed in a squat red bungalow. Directly behind it sits a garden, and back on the left the smokehouse, the source of Grove Market's famed smoked seafood. Inside the bungalow, it's all mismatched furniture and casual yard-sale whimsy, all curated with what appears to be an iron fist. I didn't meet anyone who had been there, but many people were proud to have it in their backyard.

It's West Ocean City, though, that has the potential to develop into a dining destination. It's just a short hop back on U.S. 50 over the Isle of Wight Bay, but West Ocean City feels like an entirely different world. And the people who live and work there seem on the level when they say they seldom, or never, cross over to the coastal strip.

The wildly (and deservedly) popular Sunset Grille is here. A sprawling waterside expanse of dining rooms and decks, the upscale restaurant is impeccably operated and managed, a pleasure to visit. Nearby, the homier Harborside Bar & Grille, famous for its orange "crushes," attracts locals and visitors alike. It was a Harborside bartender who made sure I stopped by the Shark at the Harbor, local-food champion that moved across the bay a few years ago, and tipped me off to what turned out to be my favorite stop of the weekend, the one-of-a-kind Shrimp Boat, a roadside wonder that Joe Crochetti started over 20 years ago.

Locals knew the area's freshest shrimp were here, and Crochetti is adamant about steaming them with their heads on. An ever ever-expanding complex of kitchen buildings has grown behind the landmark boat, and prepared foods — terrific shrimp sliders, oyster fritters and the scallops Chetti appetizer now compete for attention. I didn't get everything done I needed to in Ocean City, and the Shrimp Boat is partly to blame. I never wanted to leave.

Phillips changes News hit last week that Phillips, an original tenant of Harborplace, would not br renewing its lease after 31 years. This was quickly followed by unconfirmed reports that Phillips would moving just a few piers east into the old ESPN Zone space in the Power Plant complex. If that does happen, it could give Phillips something the Harborplace location never could — a waterside setting for outdoor crab feasting.

I'm thinking of the floating barge, one of three along Pier 4, that ESPN Zone used mostly for outdoor drinking. It's not a given that Phillips, even if it does move to Power Plant, would want to convert the barge into a crab deck. (Neither do we know for certain that the new Phillips would be a Maryland seafood restaurant; see Bombora above.)

But I like the crab deck idea, and so I'm planting it.

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