Given its prime location along the Inner Harbor’s edge in Fells Point, Ampersea has a lot going for it even before getting to the thoughtful food.
Formerly the Waterfront Kitchen, the space underwent a makeover early this year resulting in a crisply contemporary dining room.
Nautical-evocative tints of blues and greens on some of the wall space contrast neatly with the deep gray tones of tables and chairs. Behind the bar shines an aqua-colored version of an ampersand — the restaurant derived its name and logo from that word. (The suave decor wasn’t enhanced by a large pile of beverage cartons left on the floor the night we stopped by.)
To go with the new surroundings, executive chef Nelson Morton, previously of Bookmakers Cocktail Club, devised a menu aimed at celebrating Maryland, and not just with crab cakes. The point of Ampersea, it seems, is to evoke, not imitate, old Maryland dishes, leaving room for individualistic touches.
A case in point is the Marconi chopped salad.
Baltimoreans prone to nostalgia (isn’t that most Baltimoreans?) will enjoy the reference to the long-gone, much-lamented Marconi’s restaurant. But they may frown upon discovering that this isn’t an exact duplicate of that establishment’s signature salad — no anchovies, for example, or peas or iceberg lettuce.
Smiles should return, however, once this salad is tasted, for it’s a fresh, tangy combo of greens, avocado, beets, tomato, cucumber, olives, goat cheese and egg in a buttermilk dressing.
The deviled egg has become a retro-redolent item nowadays. The version here, which Morton previously featured at Bookmakers, is cheeseburger deviled eggs. The egg-and-beef fusion didn’t evoke a cheeseburger taste to me; it struck me as heavy, even a little pushy.
No qualms about the good and gooey blue crab dip. It arrived steaming hot in a cast iron dish, surrounded by a soft, thick Bavarian pretzel, proving that Ampersea knows how to put the comfort in comfort food.
Another small plate impressed — crisply roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon in a shallot vinaigrette.
And even if you’re tired of encountering some form of macaroni and cheese on menus these days, the savory one credited here to a Miss Rebecca boasts a nicely decadent addition of shrimp and crab (we found much more of the former than the latter), along with broccoli pieces.
Another young lady gets a mention among the entrees — Miss Margaret’s chicken and dumplings. Our amiable server recounted a tale about the recipe being traced to a woman of that name way back in Maryland’s past, which we all took with a grain of salt.
Whatever its origin, the dish didn’t quite shine. The chicken could have been more tender and flavorful, and wasn't lifted by the densely textured quinoa dumplings. Still, the accompanying array of spinach, smoked bacon, and root vegetables in a subtle cream sauce offered rewards.
A sizable portion of rockfish revealed a crisp top and ideal flakiness inside, but half of it had gone cold, apparently from having lay on an unheated plate. The rest, however, retained its warmth and its excellent flavor resting atop a wonderful supporting cast — au gratin potato, mustard greens, baby carrot, butternut squash puree, crisped leeks.
Stellar scallops, beautifully grilled to deliver abundant moisture and flavor, were complemented in style by turnip and squash purees, mashed peas, gremolata and micro greens. A first-rate dish all around.
As for the rest of our meal: Well-mixed cocktails provided a pleasant prelude (snaps to the bar for the single block of ice in the old fashioned); by-the-glass wines satisfied, especially a Brazin old vine zinfandel; subtle herb bread hit the spot; and desserts, including a float made with a hearty stout and an ice-creamy concoction with fried cookie dough, proved entertaining.
With its stylish look, welcoming vibe and imaginative kitchen, there’s ample reason to think Ampersea will flourish.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 1417 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 443-681-5310, ampersea.com
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Appetizers $7 to $15, entrees $20 to $39
Noise/TVs: With a few other diners present the night we visited, there was no noisy buzz; the room is commendably TV-free.
Service: Pleasant and proficient
Parking: Street, garages
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]