Earlier this year, The Baltimore Sun urged readers to mark their calendars for the opening of The Choptank restaurant. With its newest venture, the Atlas Restaurant Group, known for the city’s buzzier spots like Ouzo Bay and The Bygone, promised to transform the south shed of Fells Point’s Broadway Market into a celebration of our region’s rich culinary heritage.
After some delays, The Choptank opened this September. And from the looks of it, things are all right. Contractors have left intact touches like historic beadboard ceilings and the castiron columns. On the walls, archival photos depict the steamboats along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. An inviting outdoor patio, a former parking lot made into a courtyard, offers pool tables, a full bar and, oddly, Porta Johns.
But the menu consists largely of bad takes on classic Maryland foods.
A too-salty order of calamari was overbreaded on both visits, like a mouthful of sand. There is such a thing as too much Old Bay, it turns out.
A martini was drowned in vermouth. Crab and avocado toast was overwhelmed by onion until it resembled tuna salad. During one visit, shucked oysters arrived with shards of shell that needed to be spit out.
The offenses continue in the entrees. The $38 crab cake platter was massively overseasoned one visit, fishy and bland the next. On both visits, the accompanying french fries were dry and cardboard-stiff, as if they’d been sitting out since the day before. Bad french fries would be a problem at any restaurant, but at Choptank, where they’re served with nearly half the dishes, including a $39 New York strip, it feels like a particularly egregious blunder.
More edible was the juicy Eastern Shore chicken, served with a greasy biscuit and a pasta salad you’d expect at a cookout. We also enjoyed a Roseda pit beef sandwich on brioche, topped with horseradish slaw.
Prepare to see people in Zegna suits picking crabs. What was that shard that just went flying at your neck? Why, it’s shrapnel of crab claw, let loose by a neighboring table hammering away at a pile of crustaceans, and lending the air the tell-tale crab aroma that embeds itself in your clothes. (Crab lovers should call ahead to make sure crabs are in stock. After placing an order for a half dozen one evening, our server informed us that they didn’t have any.)
A rubbery Berger cookie bread pudding bore no resemblance to Baltimore’s favorite dessert — a culinary crime if there ever was one. We preferred the sliver of cheesecake.
The menu offers several items for dogs, but only one vegetarian-friendly option, the Caesar salad.
Our one-star review might be lower were it not for the warmth and professionalism of the waitstaff. Servers checked in regularly without being intrusive. Dishes were bused at appropriate intervals.
But good service isn’t the rule. On our first visit, we were turned away from the door, despite having a reservation; the restaurant was closed for a private event. “So why were we able to make the reservation, and then a day later confirm the reservation?” we asked. Shrugs. A host said they had tried to call us.
On a second trip, the valet attendant eyed us and our nearly 20-year-old Toyota warily. “Is this the valet?” we asked. We were directed to move our car into a parking space and wait. Meanwhile, a new-looking Volvo SUV pulled up, and the suited driver was tended to right away.
During that visit, we were seated in the midst of a political fundraiser for an aspiring member of city council. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has been a guest, and recipient of donations from Atlas Restaurant Group owner Alex Smith. He has spoken highly of the restaurateur, defending him against accusations of racism in the restaurant’s dress code, which was later revised.
Citing The Sun’s coverage of the dress code controversy, a spokesman for the restaurant group declined to allow one of the Sun’s trained photographers in to take pictures of the food. That’s why you are seeing my iPhone shots of the restaurant’s crab cakes.
Choptank has only been open a few months. For the sake of Baltimore, it would be nice if this restaurant, which occupies such a huge space in the center of Fells Point, could turn things around. To start: Ease up on the Old Bay. Rethink that bread pudding. And for the love of god, do something about those french fries.
Rating: 1 star
Where: 1641 Aliceanna St., Fells Point
Contact: 443-707-3364, thechoptankbaltimore.com
Open: Sunday through Saturday 11 a.m. through midnight; bar open until 2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers $12 to $18; entrees $18 to $39
Food: Upscale crab house
Noise/TVs: Loud, and there’s probably a political fundraiser happening. TVs are on inside at the bar.
Service: Ranges from cheerful and friendly to indifferent and borderline disdainful.
Special diets: Can be accommodated.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations, but they’re not necessarily a guarantee that you’ll be seated.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]