I've always had fun on my visits to Nick's Fish House. The drinks are cold, the crabs are fat and the outdoor decks overlook an expanse of water — the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, to be exact. It feels like you're at the beach.
Under new management since last year, the Port Covington restaurant is now even better. The downstairs deck has been refurbished, and the sprawling restaurant now has four outdoor bars with dining.
The biggest improvement, though, is the food. The kitchen is turning out typical seafood dishes, but the caliber of the ingredients and the attention to detail nudge the plates beyond average crab-shack fare.
On a midweek evening, the place was hopping with happy-hour revelers and families. We were shepherded to a picnic table on the first floor's covered deck.
It was noisy, and the party vibe was palpable. We were swept up in the buoyant mood.
Fruit crush drinks — from orange to mango — rule here. An array of other drinks is offered, including specialty cocktails and buckets of beer. House wines like a California pinot noir and an Italian pinot grigio are $8 by the glass, $32 by the bottle.
The "we're on vacation" ambience has been boosted by the new operators, who hail from Delaware beach towns: Steve "Monty" Montgomery of The Starboard restaurant in Dewey Beach, Jim Weisgerber of Bethany Blues BBQ in Bethany Beach and Lewes, and Eric Sugrue of the Big Fish Restaurant Group in Rehoboth Beach. Chef Lupe Bueno is orchestrating the food.
We started our meal with four admirable Chesapeake crab balls. The mini crab cakes were balanced on a cushion of tartar sauce squiggles, with red-leaf lettuce adding color and crunch to the dish.
The cream of crab soup was lush with lumps of crab.
We really liked the poached pear and goat cheese salad, which glistened with a balanced champagne vinaigrette. The mound of organic field greens was embellished with thin slices of red onion and addictive toffee pecans.
This is a casual dining spot, but the servers deftly handle multiple tables and keep the courses and drinks arriving at appropriate intervals.
We didn't get steamed crabs on this visit, but the Old Bay-scented trays marching past us looked appealing. The night of our visit, the crabs ranged in price from $50 for a dozen small to $150 for a dozen colossal. You can order by the half-dozen, too.
Our entrees were equally appetizing. The broiled seafood platter was a delicious feast with a crab cake, scallops, a tilapia fillet and three large shrimp. We enjoyed our choices of side dishes — coleslaw and red bliss mashed potatoes.
The catch of the day, mahi-mahi, was prettily plated, with the grilled fillet cloaked in lemon butter sauce and set atop a layer of cheesy potatoes and grilled asparagus. The flavor combo was better than some we've had at upscale seafood houses.
The fried shrimp dinner was another welcome arrival. The large shrimp were lightly breaded, and the fries, dusted with Old Bay-like spices, and the macaroni and cheese were great accompaniments.
Key lime pie is a perfect ending at a place like Nick's. The tart tropical-fruit custard is a wonderful palate cleanser after all the seafood.
But we couldn't ignore the temptation of the restaurant's chocolate cake, featuring three dense brownie layers, dark chocolate custard, milk chocolate custard and dark chocolate ganache. It was as decadent and great as it sounds.
The popular waterfront restaurant has been a beacon since it opened in 2004 on a forlorn stretch of Baltimore shoreline. Its renaissance fits in well with the rest of the development proposed for Port Covington.
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Nick's is positioned just fine for the future.