At first, we walked right by the door to Rye Street Tavern — we were too busy admiring the Adirondack chairs and fire pits overlooking the water, not to mention the chefs working in the kitchen behind the windows.
We weren't even sure it was the entrance, but not seeing any other options, we cautiously peeked in the back door. The hostess assured us that we were in the right place. (For the record, there is another way into the building through an imposing front door.)
That was about the only confusion during our visit to the new restaurant in Port Covington, where a Walmart stood for many years. The store has been replaced by the shiny Sagamore Spirit distillery on the campus of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's planned mixed-use development. Rye Street Tavern opened on the property bordering the Patapsco River in September.
We were shepherded to a table in the main dining room, an intimate, 70-seat space, with a scenic view of the outdoors. Even when darkness descended, exterior white lights cast a spell on those not already bewitched by the food and decor.
Local designer Patrick Sutton has created a visual and textural masterpiece in the two-level restaurant with wood, leather, suede and steel details. It's engagingly tactile; you'll want to touch everything, especially the luxurious banquettes.
The separate bar is also a showcase. A giant buffalo head hangs over a fireplace surrounded by vintage paintings. The scene reminds me of a comfortable lodge.
The goal was to create a place steeped in Americana, said Andrew Carmellini, a partner with Luke Ostrom and Josh Pickard in the NoHo Hospitality Group, which operates the restaurant. They also oversee the Rec Pier Chop House in Fells Point and restaurants in New York and Miami Beach.
"I wanted a feel of home to it and a coziness to it," said Carmellini, a James Beard award winner, about Rye Street Tavern.
The restaurant's chef de cuisine, Brian Plante, who has worked with Carmellini in New York and at Rec Pier, has embraced the local vibe, too, settling into a home in Locust Point.
The servers, wearing jeans, crisp shirts and suspenders, swooped in and out of our table during the evening, delivering items with short, sometimes unexpected bursts about a dish's ingredients.
Our lead server was pleasant but perfunctory in her duties. She seemed in a hurry to take our order while we were still waiting for drinks and tried to whisk away dishes we hadn't finished (please don't take the delicious cornbread, we asked). She may have been new at the job. She perked up later in the meal and enthusiastically described the differences between sorbet, sherbet and ice cream like a kid wanting to ace a math test. We appreciated her effort.
In keeping with the restaurant's ethos, American-made wines, beer and spirits are served. A list of whiskey cocktails leads the way.
The moonshine mule — served in a glass, not a copper mug — sparkled with clear whiskey, ginger beer and lime. The Old Pal delivered a stellar sip with Sagamore Spirit Rye and dry vermouth.
You can nibble on appetizers like hand-carved country ham, local Karma Farm carrots or Green Goddess-glazed butter lettuce.
The wood-broiled Choptank oysters arrived on a bed of gray rocks and got our attention with a zing of Hatch chilies. They were as appealing as the fried popcorn soft-shell clams, an adorable nest of crunchy morsels with blistered shishito peppers.
The raw bar has a requisite seafood tower ($75) and less grandiose options, too. The Taylor Bay scallop crudo, prettily displayed on crushed ice in a decorative seashell, was captivating with the addition of thinly sliced grapes and pine nuts.
Carmellini knows his market, offering a crab dish of the day. On a Tuesday, we greeted three crab-stuffed deviled eggs, simple affairs emboldened with a single jalapeno slice and an impossibly thin scallion sliver on each golden swirl.
Main dishes include two sandwich options (a crispy flounder or a cheddar-stuffed burger), fried chicken (Southern or jerk), a seafood bake (three variations) or an entree from a short list.
When I later asked Carmellini why his chicken is called "famous" on the menu, he laughed and said it had become a big seller at another NoHo Hospitality restaurant and represented his commitment to American cooking.
"It's soul food updated," he said. "It's what grandmothers are making."
The Southern-style chicken dinner in a skillet is beyond my family's skill level (sorry, Grandma), but at the hands of a chef, this succulent chicken soared with honey-glazed buttermilk biscuits and whiskey pickles. We were surprised that there were no greens on the plate, and no side offerings to amend the lapse.
The Tavern steak, aged in Sagamore Rye, was also naked of veggies, but the prime beef, glistening with a rich juiciness, distracted us with frothy whipped potatoes and onion rings.
The Whistle Pig Hollow double pork chop revealed an alluring smokiness and a welcome mess of collard greens. Apples that looked like small potatoes spoke of fall but weren't quite fork-tender.
Order a seafood bake with your meal. Each one is packed with crabmeat, giant prawns, mussels and clams. You pick the style: "the coast" with tomatoes and white wine, "the bay" with Natty Boh and Old Bay potatoes, and "the gulf" with salsa verde and hominy.
We sopped up the fragrant juices of a coast bake with a grilled baguette while digging messily into the abundant seafood.
You will want to end with one of pastry chef Sarah Malphrus' wonders. The towering three-layer coconut cake met with the approval of everyone in our party. A scoop of Maryland mule sherbet gave the slice a ginger kick.
The campfire sundae was fun with toasted marshmallow (be sure to scoop to the bottom for the peanuts), but an airy chocolate chiffon pie was a classy finish with a lovely orange undertone.
Rye Street Tavern doesn't want you to forget about the restaurant after you leave. Each diner gets a fresh muffin to take home.
The next day, the apple-whiskey confection reminds you of the terrific meal and experience at Port Covington's newest destination spot. You'll want another bite.
RYE STREET TAVERN
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 225 E. Cromwell St., Port Covington
Contact: 443-662-8000, ryestreettavern.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (lunch) and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (lunch) and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (brunch) and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (brunch) and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $11-$18; entrees, $17-$34.
Food: New American with mid-Atlantic influences
Noise/TVs: The dining room is quietly energetic; two TVs in the bar.
Service: Our waitress was polite but abrupt at times. She may have been new to the job.
Parking: Parking lot and street
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes