Dining Out: O’Brien’s on Main puts the focus on seafood

“It’s about giving diners what they want, not what you wish they wanted.” That’s the philosophy of Kostas Alexakis, the new owner of O’Brien’s on Main Street in Annapolis. Alexakis took over the business this spring.

O’Brien’s building has been the site of a pub or restaurant for 224 years, while it’s been known as a popular bar and nightspot for decades.

He is aiming for a top-quality, moderately priced seafood restaurant steeped in the city’s maritime and naval heritage. And he wants to keep the customers O’Brien’s has always had plenty of — folks looking for lively music and entertainment at night. Alexakis says he is determined to thread that needle.

It’s a work in progress. If a recent visit is any indication, Alexakis is on his way to creating what many feel will be a welcome addition to the already jam-packed Main Street restaurant scene.

Some changes are coming to the stodgy decor, and an outdoor dining patio away from the busy street will soon be ready. Other upgrades are expected to follow, but the most obvious renovation is already on the menu.

The raw bar is at the top of the page, along with shrimp, mussels and calamari in a variety of preparations. The list of a dozen appetizers includes a tower built of fresh oysters, clams and more. Tuna, crab and scallops can start a meal as well.

With a slight sign of autumn in the air, my wife chose Chef Solomon Urquia’s French onion soup ($6.95). Whenever she orders this classic, she almost invariably finds a huge glop of cheese on top, robbing it of its delicacy. Urquia’s version was just right: a well-seasoned broth, redolent with onion and just enough cheese and crouton to provide some heft.

A quarter-pound of big shrimp, perfectly steamed in onions and Old Bay ($10.95) was the right note to put us in a seafood mood for our entrees: a crab cake platter ($19.95) and baked stuffed shrimp ($26.95).

The list of entrees makes a polite nod to meat (there’s steak, ribs and a chicken dish stuffed with crab), but seafood is the focus of the new O’Brien’s.

The restaurant’s entry in the never-ending local crab cake derby contained some good quality meat for the price. A lighter filler and subtler seasoning would easily make it a smoother, moister cake. It came nestled in a bed of rice pilaf laced with colorful fresh vegetables.

A beautifully plated meal always lifts a diner’s spirits. My baked stuffed shrimp arrived on a long, rectangular plate: four large shellfish heaped with crab imperial-style stuffing were as pleasing to eat as they were to look at. Baking shrimp and crab can easily result in a chewy, dry mouthful. Urquia gets the baking right, and the dish appears to benefit from a quick run under the broiler to add a bit of browning. I swapped the suggested mashed potatoes for a heap of french fries, hot and crisp — exactly the way they should be.

The beverage selections at O’Brien’s are well priced and intelligently chosen. The server at our early evening visit was clearly a seasoned professional who knew what the food contained and how it tasted — always a pleasant surprise at local restaurants.

O’Brien’s will never lose its appeal as a popular City Dock pub, thanks to its history and location.

But if Alexakis can keep it on track toward his vision of a downtown restaurant for a good, affordable seafood dinner, locals and visitors will be the winners.

O’Brien’s Oyster Bar and Grillfish

WHERE: 113 Main St., Annapolis

PHONE: 410-268-6288

WEBSITE: obriensoysterbar.com

HOURS: Mon – Sat: 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 a.m., Sun: 11 a.m. - Midnight

CHEF: Solomon Urquia

PRICES: $6.95 - $23.95 for appetizers, $12.95 -$31.95 for sandwiches and entrees

CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards

RESERVATIONS: Accepted

ACCESSIBILITY: Yes

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