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At voyage's onset, choppy waters for The Chesapeake

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Seven weeks in, The Chesapeake is still finding its sea legs.

There is potential here. The servers are capable and friendly, and there's evidence of talent in the kitchen, but the new restaurant near Station North has yet to assemble a coherent message.

It's exasperating. What are they waiting for?

The owners of The Chesapeake have talked about wanting it to be approachable. They've achieved that, at least with the physical space, which is roomy, comfortable and blandly attractive. The long marble bar is a beauty, and the basic materials feel solid. But it's under-decorated to the point of austerity, and you could be anywhere. Still, no one will run screaming away at the sight of it.

Afterward though, back on the street, you might wonder what it was all about. Everything's approachable, but nothing's exciting. The Chesapeake, by wanting to be accessible to everybody, ends up being not much for anybody.

The menu still feels too limited, more like what you'd find in bistro than a big-shouldered restaurant. When we visited, there were seven entrees, eight appetizers, a few snacks and a couple of salads. There's a hamburger, too. The lobster sandwich on the opening menu is gone.

There is no soup, which is odd for any restaurant, but particularly one called The Chesapeake. There is a crab cake, listed as a $21 appetizer, and a rockfish entree, but otherwise The Chesapeake's menu doesn't present the "region's bounty," as the website suggests. There is a pasta entree featuring vegetables from Five Seeds Farm in nearby Sparks, but that's the only thing the menu tells you about sourcing.

In fairness, The Chesapeake has stopped describing itself as farm-to-table restaurant, which is fine by me. It never needed to be one. I think all that anyone wanted from The Chesapeake was for it to swing for the fences. No one wants to see a restaurant try to bunt its way on.

Why is there such a pretty raw bar but only three varieties of oysters available, and only one from the Chesapeake Bay? The oysters are served with a cocktail sauce but no mignonette sauce, which is how a restaurant with a serious oyster program does things. It's a small thing but it's a mistake, and it's typical of the kind of thing The Chesapeake does, or doesn't do, that is rather irksome.

The menu lists a cheese plate with three local, artisanal cheeses, but none of the three featured cheeses are actually local, instead coming from Virginia, New York and Wisconsin. And forget trying to see if The Chesapeake works as an after-movie bite during the week; it now closes at 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday instead of 1 a.m., although its website hasn't been updated to reflect that change.

Yes, August is slow, but there are citizens about. Tapas Teatro, right next door, was humming when The Chesapeake had pulled up its carpet.

Everyone deserves better, starting with executive chef Jordan Miller, whose entrees come across as fully realized complete thoughts.

The two best dishes are a New York strip — three thick, ruby slices suspended over a sweet-onion broth and dotted with chimichurri sauce — and a scallops entree with fried green tomatoes and succotash, in which everything was cooked perfectly. Right behind them was a roasted chicken dish with heirloom carrots and black-eyed peas, a little under-flavored. The pasta dish was nice, too, full of crisp, pretty vegetables. But it has no protein and is overpriced at $22.

Early on, an appetizer of Natty Boh clams, served with chorizo in a tomato-basil broth, was a good idea. If feels like it belongs at The Chesapeake. But other starters, like a plate of hush puppies with pimento sauce and a pork belly plate with purees of cauliflower and peach, feel like they wandered in from other restaurants, which do them better. The hush puppies were mushy and the pork belly too fibrous.

The bar program is ambitious but precious. The bar carries small-batch American gins but not Tanqueray. The beer selection has an impressive local focus; the wine list is priced for fine dining, which would be OK if that's what The Chesapeake offered.

For dessert there's an absolutely divine peach cake, served with peach jam and sweet corn ice cream. The Balti-S'More and the Chesapeake Coconut "Snowball," a tribute to the space's previous tenant, have too many parts and not enough oomph.

Expectations are high for The Chesapeake. The city considers its location a strategic gateway between Penn Station and the emerging neighborhoods to the north. And the owners get credit for investing in the long-moribund property, for cleaning the old place up and getting it open.

My grievances have less to do with what's there than what's not there, things like vigor and showmanship. What you want to feel, but don't, is the sense of someone caring passionately about every detail of every diner's visit.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com


The Chesapeake

Rating: 2 stars

Where: 1701 N. Charles St., Charles North

Contact: 410-547-2760, thechesapeakebaltimore.com

Prices: Appetizers $5-$14; entrees $22-$33

Food: Contemporary American cuisine

Service: Friendly and helpful

Best dishes: Scallops with fried green tomatoes and summer succotash, New York strip with soubise sauce

Parking: On-street metered parking and nearby lots

Children: There are no special accommodations or menu items for children.

Noise level/television: It can get noisy when the room is full. TVs in the bar area are infrequently in use.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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