For now, the entrance to Oyster Bay Grille is a little obscure.
It helps to have a mental map of Towson in your head, or if you remember the previous tenant in this Towson Circle space, a restaurant named Vin that operated for a few years before closing in 2008.
It would help even more if you waited until next year. That's when the Towson Square project is set to open, more or less at Oyster Bay Grille's front door. Construction for that $85 million project, which will include a 15-screen movie theater and eight restaurants, is under way.
The owners of Oyster Bay Grille — the team includes brothers Nick and John Daskalakis and their longtime friend Sypros Stavrakas — have said they are prepared to play a waiting game, and to use the time wisely. A little obscurity, they said, will help them establish some solid footing for when the big crowds arrive.
But diners who want to try Oyster Bay Grille now will be frustrated by this lack of urgency, which plays out in real time as a series of disconnects.
The publike atmosphere, which dominates the front section of the restaurant, doesn't jibe with the menu's price points, which range from $15 for Mahi Mahi tacos to $39 for a Creekstone Farms filet mignon. The service staff doesn't appear to have been trained for upscale dining. At least four times, a food runner offered food to our table that belonged elsewhere.
The menu careens between posh pub fare, such as Wagyu beef sliders and lamb meatballs, and items with farm-to-table aspirations such as heritage chicken and Pennsylvania lamb chops. The dessert list includes "Prigel Family Creamery Certified Organic Ice Cream," but the Glen Arm creamery doesn't make organic ice cream. For me that was a troubling blooper.
It's an honest error, I'm sure, but it made me wonder if they know what organic means.
There is further sloppiness and lack of clarity. There are typos on the wine list, which doesn't offer information about vintages. The draft beer and cocktail selection seem more suited for happy hour snacks than as companions for a $39 steak. The former throws a few local brews from Union Craft Brewing and Heavy Seas among pub perennials like Blue Moon and Stella Artois; the latter is dominated by party-time concoctions like a strawberry martini and fruit crushes.
The most unfortunate thing is that all of this shows up on the plate.
There are half-considered appetizers like Maryland crab balls, three dollops of crab meat served with a spring-onion aioli, that amount to three quick bites; an heirloom beet salad with goat cheese and spiced pecans, in which the beets have been sliced up but not seasoned or otherwise brightened up. The cornmeal-crusted oysters were dry, with a heavy, under seasoned coating and no juice from the oysters. Fried pickles were not good. For some reason they were fried as slices instead of wedges.
The entrees don't fare much better. We liked the crispy skin on the Chesapeake rockfish but the fish itself had no flavor. It wasn't mild, or sweet or nutty. Truly it was odd. The heritage chicken was very, very dry. The lamb chops were grilled well and had some pleasing flavor but were too fatty. The strongly flavored pan-seared Black Pearl organic salmon was the best of the entrees.
There are encouraging signs. Executive chef Christopher Vocci has a good hand with sauces, like the Madeira jus that accompanied the chicken, the port reduction that flattered the lamb chops and the piquant lemon dill beurre blanc that livened up the salmon. And we enjoyed the savory sides, especially a hash of sweet potato, sausage, corn and asparagus that Vocci served with the rockfish.
When we visited, Oyster Bay Grille's raw bar was featuring a half-dozen oysters, along with clams and a choice of crab, shrimp and lobster cocktails. The oysters are priced by the piece, $2 or $3 each, and it's an impressive selection, ranging from the widely available Blue Point to the less familiar Salt Points. We ordered a half-dozen, and asked for "shucker's choice." They sent over six Blue Points, which amounts to a missed opportunity to impress a new customer.
Oyster Bay Grille may have time to figure itself out before crowds show up. Until then, there will be customers coming in the doors who will be looking for a better experience than we had.
Oyster Bay Grille
Rating: 1 star
Where: 1 E. Joppa Road, Towson
Contact: 443-275-7026, oysterbaygrille.com
Prices: Appetizers $9-$13 ; entrees $23-$39
Food: American tavern fare
Service: Casual and erratic
Best dishes: Lamb meatballs, pan-seared salmon, heirloom beet salad
Parking/Accessibility: Complimentary valet parking and adjacent lot parking
Noise level/televisions: The back room is quieter than the front section, where the bar is located. In the bar/lounge, there are several flat screen televisions which are visible from the dining room.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]