The opening of Blackwall Hitch this spring was like a big, sprawling and sparkly ocean liner pulling into the Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis.
Blackwall Hitch is not really a seagoing vessel. It's a brick-and-mortar restaurant, just like all the other ones that line the streets of Eastport. But it feels a lot less earthbound than The Rockfish, the long-running restaurant that preceded it on the corner of Sixth Street and Severn Avenue, a gateway location just over the Spa Creek Bridge from the Annapolis historic district.
One of the Blackwall Hitch proprietors, James King, was a minority owner of The Rockfish, but King and his new partners have made a clean break with the old restaurant. They shut down operations for nine months, stripped the property down to its walls and started from scratch.
The property reopened in May as Blackwall Hitch, whose name refers to both the knot that goes around the top of an anchor and the port in London, which has historic trade connections to the port of Annapolis.
Blackwall Hitch is a beauty. The renovation has produced new spaces that evoke a nautical mood without resorting to fish-nets and bric-a-brac. There is solid and simple contemporary furniture, cool stone floors and new marble-top counters, including one, facing the open kitchen, that serves as the restaurant's 16-seat oyster bar.
The Rockfish seemed a little laid-back, in that Annapolis way. Blackwall Hitch is comparatively energetic, and the fresh-breeze spirit flows from the expansive front bar — which hosts live music on Wednesday through Saturday nights — back to the first-floor dining rooms and up the stairs to the newly remodeled rooftop deck.
We had our dinner in the main dining room, which was filled with sunlight on an early Saturday evening. We had arrived just before the evening's big crowds started pouring in. Actually, we didn't have much choice. Prime-time reservations at Blackwall Hitch are hard to come by, but we were told our chances at getting a table were pretty good if we showed up on the early side.
If Blackwall Hitch has quickly made itself a hit, it's not only because the atmosphere is so inviting, but also because the menu has been designed to satisfy both casual diners looking for a hamburger or oyster po'boy after a day on the water, and destination diners who want some full-on entrees like rockfish with lump crab, prime rib or the big-ticket item, a 40-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak, known in steak-lovers' circles as a tomahawk, that fetches $69.
It's all good on paper, and I was glad to hear that Blackwall Hitch gets fresh produce and seafood in every day. The only freezer at Blackwall Hitch, we were told, is the one used for ice cream.
But the food we tried was not as impressive as everything else at Blackwall Hitch, including the service, which was uniformly polite and especially concerned about our enjoyment. Our server noticed we weren't finishing some of our dishes and asked us about it, gently. We told her we just weren't very hungry. The truth is, there wasn't much worth finishing.
There weren't serious problems with the food, mostly an overall blandness that too often came across as dated, or as playing it too safe.
These dull dishes are things like Hitch Medallions, an appetizer of chicken medallions wrapped in bacon and drizzled with chipotle sauce, which would be OK as menu filler but felt disappointing as a designated "chef's special." Or the Rockfish Revisited entree, which should be a signature dish but instead is an under-broiled piece of rockfish smothered in a too-pungent sherry Dijon sauce.
There are times when menu descriptions promise things that aren't delivered. The celery, baby carrots and onions served with the braised short rib, itself underseasoned, looked and tasted as though they had been steamed but were supposed to have been roasted. It would have made a difference. This kept happening. The spinach with the rockfish should have been flash-sauteed but wasn't. The "seasoned rice medley" wasn't seasoned.
Only the Maryland crab cakes were very disappointing, because they should serve as ambassadors of Chesapeake dining in the state capital, but were dull tasting. And I'm not a freak about lumps — I always say that claw meat has more flavor than lumps — but if you mention jumbo lump on the menu, there ought to be lumps.
The food at Blackwall Hitch can feel half-hearted or half-baked, right through dessert, which offers up either stale ideas like a brownie with ice cream or promising ideas that aren't carried through, like a pineapple upside-down cake, presented in a cast-iron skillet, which needed a finishing touch, like the glaze of buttery brown sugar the menu mentioned.
Annapolis diners have a reputation for being slow to warm up to new culinary ideas, so some of this is possibly playing to a tough market.
Still, you want more. You can see the thought and effort that's gone into making Blackwall Hitch a special place for the community. The food should be special, too.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Where: 400 Sixth St., Annapolis
Contact: 410-263-3454, theblackwallhitch.com
Open: 11 a.m. to midnight daily
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$18; entrees: $18-$34
Food: Contemporary American food
Service: Enthusiastic and informed
Parking: Free parking on the restaurant's private lot
Children: The children's menu includes items like chicken fingers and fettuccine marinara.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in most dining areas. There are three televisions in the bar that are not visible from the dining rooms
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1 ]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun