If the last time you saw the inside of the Recreation Pier in Fells Point was on the TV show "Homicide: Life on the Street," you're in for a big surprise. The place is a lot swankier than its former set days as a police station.
The spruced-up 1914 Beaux Arts building — a restoration project backed by Under Armour's Kevin Plank and his brother, Scott — now houses Sagamore Pendry Baltimore, a 128-room luxury hotel, along with amenities like the restaurant Rec Pier Chop House, which opened in March.
We made dinner reservations almost two weeks ahead of our visit and still could only get an early slot on a weeknight. We were glad to see it in the daylight, though.
The room, designed by Baltimore's Patrick Sutton, is sumptuous but warmly inviting, with rich woods, brick, leather-upholstered semicircular booths, dramatic hanging lanterns and a colorful view of historic Thames Street. The bare tables are set with folksy placemats and tattersall napkins, not stuffy white linens.
James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini of New York-based NoHo Hospitality Group oversees the restaurant, offering an Italian chophouse menu that includes pastas and steaks. Recently, Baltimorean John Paidas was added to the culinary staff as executive chef.
Paidas, a Culinary Institute of America grad, returned to Maryland after spending several years working in New York City restaurants like La Pecora Bianca, Charlie Bird and Le Bernardin.
We're hoping, as a native of Crabtown, Paidas* will do something about the restaurant's appetizer crab cake, the only flaw in a magnificent meal with impeccable service. (Charleston, Magdalena and other restaurants in the area will be facing stiff competition from this fabulous newcomer.)
The offending dish is described as a Maryland blue crab cake on the menu, but, Baltimoreans, be prepared. The small orb comes buried beneath a lava flow of hollandaise sauce while sitting in a puddle of pizzaiola sauce. Even if you can overlook the nontraditional preparation, the thick adornments drown the delicate crabmeat.
Our other starters were terrific. The Kobe beef tartare with hazelnuts and truffles was a velvety mound of finely ground meat that elicited blissful comments and sighs from the tasters at our table.
The bundles of wild yellowfin tuna crudo also brought joy. They were delectable pink bites, hinting of salt, and delivered with droplets of piquant black-olive aioli.
The Chop House Caesar salad, prepared at your table, is worth the spectacle. A staff member rolls up a cart with the necessary ingredients and proceeds to whisk the dressing, snip a romaine heart and grate the cheese. The resulting greens are a respectable version of the classic salad.
You can indulge in a second course of pasta, or have it anytime during your meal. Choices include linguini with crab, spaghetti and meatballs, or an Italian staple, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe.
During each stage of our meal, we became more impressed with our server, whose professionalism was apparent in such niceties as pleasantly making recommendations without a lot of fanfare, properly pouring wine with a label facing a customer and remembering a neighboring guest's entree from a previous week.
The wine list is extensive, but we concentrated on a shorter menu that included a curated international selection, from an Italian Soave to an Oregon pinot noir. Craft cocktails, bourbons, ryes and vodkas are also available. Beer, including local ales, is offered in bottles and cans or on draft.
We have to praise the kitchen for correctly pacing our meal, with entrees arriving at an appropriate time. Lately, we seem to be at places where we end up with multiple courses on the table at the same time.
Our 16-ounce boneless rib-eye steak was an exquisite hunk of prime meat, simply seared to medium rare and topped with a bouquet of cherry tomatoes. We doctored it slightly with a perky horseradish cream sauce ($2 extra).
Side dishes are served family style. We enjoyed generous portions of sautéed mushrooms and a plate of broccoli rabe, whose green stalks were given a zippy nudge with chili and guanciale (cured pork).
The rockfish cacciatore was superb with its pure flavors of locally sourced white fish and a basic seasoned tomato sauce with chunks of tomatoes and sweet peppers.
The day-boat scallops, encrusted with a mild bergamot coating, were equally good. The three bronze pucks sailed atop a lovely spring-green puree of English peas.
The desserts have sophisticated Italian leanings. The "Neopolitan" sundae is like none you've had. A bowl of rich chocolate, strawberry and pistachio gelatos arrived at the table pierced by a luscious chocolate wafer and adorned with pistachios. It got even better when a server poured a swoon-worthy Amarena cherry sauce over the dish.
The bomboloni della casa are Italian doughnuts, which the kitchen stuffs with Sicilian pistachio cream and rolls in sugar. They're delicious morsels on their own, but an accompanying chocolate dipping sauce is hard to ignore.
After dinner, you can wander to the Cannon Room, an intimate American whiskey bar, or to the open courtyard, where a stocky bronze sculpture called "Horse with Bridle" stands imposingly, to soak up more of the building's impressive ambiance.
The restaurant is a splurge, but Rec Pier Chop House will bring new culinary awareness to Baltimore's dining scene. Now, if it can just fix the crab cake.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled John Paidas' last name. The Sun regrets the error.