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Upgrades at McCormick & Schmick's pay off

McCormick & Schmick's emerged in the 1970s as a reliable seafood restaurant for business travelers. Acquired this year by Landry's, the giant Houston-based "diversified restaurant, hospitality and entertainment company," the restaurant is undergoing a midlife makeover. McCormick & Schmick's has restyled its menu, its mission and even its name.

The restaurant's full name, printed on the menu, is now McCormick & Schmick's Seafood & Steaks. Fish still gets top billing, but there are competing players. Steaks have more prominence. Sides and salad have been given an upgrade, too, with steakhouse staples such as creamed spinach, savory pan-roasted wild mushrooms, iceberg wedges and chopped salad with bacon and blue cheese.

In Baltimore, this change was accompanied by a dazzlingly effective upgrade to the restaurant itself. Last month, Landry's sent out word that it had renovated the McCormick & Schmick's in the Inner Harbor. When Landry's says it has renovated one of its properties, it is not kidding.

McCormick & Schmick's now boasts one of the Inner Harbor's most impressive dining atmospheres. It didn't before the renovation. Tastes change, and carpets wear out. What passed for county-club classy in 1998, when the restaurant opened on Pier 5, dated badly.

The new seating, floor treatments and lighting design are polished, contemporary and downright lovely. We thought the timbered wooden ceiling might be new, but it has always been there. You just notice it now. The most effective change, though, is at the long bank of floor-to-ceiling windows that run the length of the bar area and main dining room. They had always been covered — who can say why — with green curtains that blocked the views. The curtains are gone now.

The mission shift is subtle but intriguing. McCormick and Schmick's was among the first restaurants I can recall, and certainly the first chain, that printed its menu every day to reflect its ever-changing larder. It might still be scouring the oceans for the freshest fish imaginable; if they are, they've gone quiet about it.

When we visited, the fresh fish options, except for Idaho rainbow trout, were a lackluster lineup of Atlantic salmon, tilapia and mahi-mahi. But the picture brightened. It was encouraging to find a legitimately local oyster selection. Of six varieties on the menu, four were from Virginia and Maryland, and the other two from farther up the coast.

A veteran waiter steered us toward a few menu items we might have otherwise passed on, like an appetizer with the dubious name "shrimp kisses." These were grilled shrimp, large and firm, wrapped in crispy caramelized bacon and baked off with an inner layer of pepperjack cheese. They sound like tailgating fare, but they were delicious, and they looked good, too, topped with thin and peppery onion rings.

I enjoyed the "fritto misto" variation of fried calamari, which adds lightly fried artichokes, jalapeno peppers and carrots to the mix. Revitalizing a familiar, or even stale, appetizer is a great idea, and the accompanying lemon aioli and spicy tomato sauce tasted fresh. Lobster bisque, poured tableside into a bowl, was buttery, thickly creamy and confidently seasoned.

For our entrees, we were encouraged to try the Atlantic salmon stuffed with crab, shrimp and brie, and a swordfish "casino," a grilled fillet topped with a breaded and broiled lump crab. They both turned out much better than they sound. The swordfish was firm and juicy, the salmon mellow and delicate, and the preparations were appealing, especially the topping of golden broiled crab on the swordfish. Accompanying vegetables are well seasoned and crisp.

A dry-rubbed rib-eye steak showed up a little too pink for a "medium" order but was otherwise a winner, with a good jolt of flavor from the rub. The only entree we didn't like was the mixed grill, a seafood trio of grilled shrimp, stuffed shrimp and grilled salmon. It would work OK for timid palates, though.

The dessert list reads a bit stale with things like creme brulee and New York cheesecake. The waiter, ever reliable, pushed us toward the Heath Bar brownie sundae. Friends, I'm telling you, this thing was awesome, with like a pound of little Heath Bar bits.

The bill, of course, adds up. Drinks are expensive. You're paying for upscale flourishes like being offered black napkins. You're paying, too, for the view. But now, at McCormick & Schmick's, you have one.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

McCormick & Schmick's

Rating: ***

Where: 711 Eastern Ave., Inner Harbor

Contact: 410-234-1300, http://www.mccormickandschmicks.com

Open: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers $8.95-$14.95 ; entrees $15.95 -$38.95

Food: Uncomplicated seafood, steaks and pastas

Service: Experienced and on point

Best dishes: Maine lobster bisque, shrimp "kisses," stuffed Atlantic salmon, swordfish "casino"

Children: The children's menu, offered for ages 12 and under, includes an activity book

Parking: Valet parking is available for $10; validated parking is offered for a lot across the street

Outdoor seating: The waterside patio, which accommodates 200, is open year-round, weather permitting

Noise level: Very comfortable

[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]

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