There was a wild and crazy party going on at Gertrude's the other night. But it wasn't at our table or any of the other pristine, cloth-covered tables in the refined dining room attached to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The din was coming from the restaurant's terrace, where a battalion of shrieking nurses were letting loose at a social get-together. When the pulsing, rainbow-colored lights, strung across the top of a tent, started at dusk, we really weren't sure where we had landed.
Even the servers seemed distracted by the commotion, which rated 80 decibels on our phone meter. Think the noise level of a garbage disposal or kitchen blender.
We held steady, even though we were hungry. The large group had overwhelmed the kitchen, delaying the arrival of our appetizers.
But we were soon appeased, delving into delicate, rosemary-scented focaccia and comforting cornbread before the starters were set before us. Gertrude's spot-on Chesapeake Bay cuisine was about to placate us further.
The cream of crab soup, laced with sherry, was a regal cup of splendor, crowned with a mound of lump crab. The single-fry Chincoteague oysters, while small, were crunchy morsels that got a boost from a tangy remoulade dipping sauce.
The chicken and corn fritters reminded us of Eastern Shore church dinners, though the accompanying mango chutney aioli gave them an au courant twist. But the portobello crab imperial, atop a drizzle of pungently sweet balsamic vinegar, was the dish that wowed our taste buds. The mushroom was marinated and grilled before being mounded with the deliciously rich imperial — giving new life to everybody's favorite potluck offering.
There was another gap before our main dishes arrived. Our server, while pleasant, was often missing in action. He seemed happier lingering by the kitchen door than addressing our drink needs. We can wait on wine, but not empty water glasses.
The wine list is thoughtful and unpretentious. You'll find a selection of reds, whites, roses, and sparklers from around the globe, including a local blend from award-winning Black Ankle. Wine drinkers will love the Wednesday promotion — all bottles and glasses of wine are half price after 4 p.m. Beer drinkers are not forgotten with a list of bottled and canned brews. And the bar gets fancy with special cocktails of the day (a rum and beer concoction on our visit) and homemade sodas.
Gertrude's has been a Baltimore mainstay since 1998, when chef-owner John Shields opened the restaurant as a tribute to Mid-Atlantic cuisine and to his grandmother, Gertrude Cleary, who taught him how to cook. Shields is here for the long haul. He recently celebrated the release of the 25th-anniversary edition of his book "Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields."
The dining room isn't a crab house, though. The warm taupe and muted red color scheme creates a romantic ambience, complete with a recessed black ceiling twinkling with tiny lights reminiscent of stars. During the day, it's a pretty spot for lunch or weekend brunch.
When our entrees finally arrived, we were rewarded for the wait. Gertie's crab cake might not be the showiest patty in town, but it is an authentic Baltimore rendition with lump crab and no discernible filler. The seafood salad was another lovely way to indulge in our local delicacy with a nest of local field greens studded with lump crab, sea scallops, and fat Gulf shrimp, dressed with a subtle roasted-lemon vinaigrette.
From the "land" side of the menu, we tucked into the Hampton Roads BBQ pork. The succulent pulled pork was bathed in a citrus barbecue sauce that was a tad too sweet. Still, the smoky flavor was captivating, and the piquant chow-chow (pickled relish) helped to cut the saccharine aftertaste. Savory hush puppies also complemented the dish.
Gertrude's offers three burgers — beef, turkey and black bean. We opted for the half-pound Springfield Farm beef burger, featuring local meat, and were quickly awed by its heft and flavor. The house-made bun was a proper support for the lettuce, tomato, pickle and, in our case, thick gobs of piquant blue cheese.
We were happy to find out that executive pastry chef Doug Wetzel was back in the kitchen. The chef collapsed during a spring triathlon and went through a long recovery period. Our desserts showed he hasn't lost his magic.
The most whimsical was the egg custard sorbet with marshmallow topping, capturing the essence of the popular Baltimore snowball. The most elegant was the nougatine glacee — a creamy, molded confection of whipped cream and meringue — partnered with a praline wafer and blackberries and blueberries.
We were able to indulge in the last peaches of the season from nearby Black Rock Orchard in another local classic — upside-down Baltimore peach cake. The moist triangle was even better with a scoop of Earl Grey-morello ice cream with its bergamot tea and cherry flavors. The churros were a fun treat to share. The long, ridged pastries were rolled in cinnamon and sugar and served with four sauces: chocolate, passion-fruit coulis, dark rum creme anglaise and cayenne-raspberry preserves. Just try and pick a favorite.
Our dinner lasted several hours, not what we were anticipating on a weeknight. But the food made it worthwhile. We just wish the restaurant staff would have literally closed the door on the outdoor exuberance. We love a good party, just not someone else's.
Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore
Contact: 410-889-3399; gertrudesbaltimore.com
Open: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Prices: Small plates, $11-$25; big plates, $13-$27.
Food: An impressive array of Chesapeake Bay cuisine.
Noise/TVs: Can be loud during seasonal, outdoor parties; no TVs.
Service: Pleasant but slow
Parking: Two lots with a fee; metered street parking
Special diets: The kitchen is happy to make substitutions for dietary needs and preferences when possible.
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Charles Village & Waverly