Annapolis is a conservative dining town, which can be frustrating, not only for enterprising restaurateurs and chefs, but for diners looking for something more interesting than broiled salmon and a New York strip.
But there are pockets of invention in this beautiful city — a friend insists Annapolis has to be the most beautiful among the state capitals — and diners have rewarded places like Level and Vin 909 with steady patronage.
Factors Row, which has been open, after long delays, for just a few short months, merits the same kind of attention, or at least a visit.
You can see summertime strollers and tourists walk up to the front door at Factors Row, a fresh breeze of a new restaurant near the City Dock, to look over the menu. Let's see here — watermelon salad, country biscuits with Virginia ham and steak frites with roasted bone marrow.
Some keep walking. Others look at each other, nod their heads and walk right in.
Factors Row has done little to market itself, but a nice crowd filled the first- and second-floor dining rooms on a recent Saturday night. The best tables, at the front windows on the second floor, look out over the harbor. The atmosphere is easygoing and preppy.
Our waiter pointed us toward menu items he thought we'd enjoy and gave coherent, useful descriptions. And when he delivered, for instance, an entree of scallops, each one topped with a drop of mascarpone-enriched avocado, he told us that it was turmeric that created the otherworldly yellow color in the charred creamed corn. That was good to know, and the dish was a thoroughgoing triumph of alluring flavors and creamy texture.
The executive chef, Keith Long, previously worked at 208 Talbot in St. Michaels and Brasserie Brightwell in Easton. Over an evening, you see him taking chances, most of them paying off. His efforts succeed with a yellowfin tuna appetizer. Long dresses up the plate with candied ginger and a cunning bit of molecular gastronomy, blood-orange and lime "caviar," the kind of pretty, bubbly trick that can help a chef win a TV cooking show.
Marylanders can be pious about tomatoes and crab meat, so it was good to see Long nervily serving the tomatoes with a hot-pink beet and chevre puree and doing something different with his crab cake, putting it on a bed of stone-ground grits. The crab cakes themselves were straightforward and good, and the grits firm and creamy, but you never really wanted to have the crab cake and grits together at the same time. I love the impulse, though.
Likewise, I loved the concept behind, and flavors in, the braised barbecue pork entree, which was meant, we were told, to be a picnic in a bowl — all of it, the pork, the macaroni and cheese, sauce, and, in crouton form, the potatoes — but if he hadn't told us that, we would have just thought it was a bunch of good stuff in a bowl.
Mostly, though, there were spot-on treats, like oven-baked naan topped with homemade farmer cheese and wildflower honey, fried green tomatoes with smoked paprika aioli and speck, and gently fried squash blossoms stuffed with mild goat cheese.
Only by comparison do a few dishes underachieve. A watermelon salad came across as chunks of fruit but was saved by the crunchy and buttery croutons. And the fruits de mer with a puttanesca sauce was not more than the sum of its good seafood; it just didn't assemble itself into a satisfying whole.
On either end, there is thoughtfulness. Start with a not-too-tart rhubarb gimlet or a not-too-sweet watermelon cocktail and finish with a champagne-poached pear with vanilla bean, caramel and French pastry cream or fresh strawberries with Chantilly cream.
The owner here is Bruce Gardner, who owned the Station Grill in Washington's Union Station. The general manager, P.J. Mailloux, is an Annapolis dining scene veteran, having put in his time at O'Learys Seafood and Hell Point Seafood.
Together with Long, it's an experienced team, and you get the feeling they're willing for Factors Row not to be a perfect fit for everybody. People who want us will find us, they seem to be saying.
Where: 26 Market St., Annapolis
Contact: 410- 280-8686, http://www.factorsrow.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $9-$12; entrees $16-$29
Food: Contemporary American cuisine
Service: Very knowledgeable and thorough
Best dishes: Scallops with charred sweet corn and avocado, crab cake, tuna tartare
Parking: Municipal parking lots
Special diets: The menu notes gluten-free items with a symbol.
Children: There is a children's menu upon request.
Noise level/television: The upper level, where we dined, was clamorous when full. There is television at the bar on the first floor, with its sound off.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star ]