Restaurant review

Rusty Scupper remains pricey but satisfying under latest chef

For The Baltimore Sun
The view isn't the only reason the Rusty Scupper has staying power.

This may be one of the priciest restaurant views in Baltimore, albeit one of the most stunning vistas of the Inner Harbor and the city skyline.

The soaring windows at the Rusty Scupper, a restaurant mainstay since 1982, provide a mesmerizing look at luxury boats, the Domino Sugars sign, and the gleaming hotel and office buildings across the water.

We can understand why dinner at the contemporary, multilevel space signals a special occasion or business expense (if people still do that). Entrees soar to the mid-$50s.

If you're fortunate enough to be at one of the linen-covered tables, sit back and relax. You will be treated to an excellent meal in a serene setting, with live piano music after 6 p.m.

The sprawling restaurant is layered, with a few steps separating the dining rooms and bar. The decor is modern but understated, probably to keep the focus on the view.

But the Rusty Scupper has enjoyed longevity for a reason besides its harborside location. The seafood offerings are stellar.

There are beef and chicken dishes if you must eat meat, but why not partake of the plump oysters, fresh catches of the day and other dishes prepared by a new chef who is putting his own spin on the traditional American menu?

William Wilt, a Howard County native and a graduate of Baltimore International College, came aboard in November and is promoting the restaurant's tried-and-true dishes while tweaking other offerings — like the roasted chicken — and adding his creative input with monthly themed specials.

He won us over with the spicy seared yellowfin tuna appetizer featured in April. Slices of ruby fish were fanned out on a plate with a windowpane drizzle of wasabi aioli, a plume of seaweed salad and ribbons of pickled ginger.

In May, the chef is focusing on soft-shell crabs with a special appetizer and two entrees.

Even that ubiquitous starter, calamari, was escalated with a crispy Parmesan coating. The tender rings and tentacles were stacked on a bed of tomato coulis streaked with swirls of Parmesan-pepper aioli.

We also tried the cream of crab soup and enjoyed a cup of silky broth laced with the fragrant essence of crab.

We succumbed to the meat-eater in us with another appetizer, the plum ginger barbecue pork ribs. The three meaty bones, glazed with a delicious, Asian-influenced sauce, were set up like a tripod over a spicy cabbage kimchi that tasted more like an American slaw than the pungent Korean condiment. It was still a fine complement to the dish.

When a Baltimore restaurant advertises authentic Maryland crab cakes on its menu, it had better deliver. And Rusty Scupper's two lump patties would make any Free Stater proud.

The cakes were draped with a three-mustard butter sauce. Fluffy mashed potatoes and fresh-from-the-garden green beans (the seasonal vegetable changes) completed the plate.

The Kent Island crab-stuffed shrimp, with the same side dishes, was also impressive.

We appreciated the simple preparation of the Caribbean mahi-mahi. The char-grilled fillet (you can also get it sauteed, broiled or blackened) was a succulent piece of fish with a glaze of lemon-butter sauce.

Our only quibble was the molded wild rice. It was correctly prepared, but its presentation made it look like it was formed for the masses instead of scooped individually on a plate. It made us feel like we were in a catering hall.

Our favorite entree of the evening was the seafood fra diavolo. It met all our shellfish needs and more. The bowl was full of shrimp, mussels, diver sea scallops and lump crab, artfully arranged over linguini with a great spicy marinara sauce. It was a masterful production.

We knew we had to sample our official state dessert, the multilayer Smith Island Cake. The Scupper's towering version featured eight layers of yellow cake, not as thin as some, but with an unevenness that made it look homemade, in a good way.

The moist cake was bound together with a decadently good chocolate-fudge icing. Amaretto biscotti ice cream was a nice addition but hardly necessary. The wedge of cake is more than enough for two people to share.

We also liked the sweet potato cheesecake, zig-zagged with warm pecan praline sauce, and the Key lime torte, an individual serving with a graham-cracker crust filled with delicate lime custard. Both desserts came with ice cream.

While a full-course dinner at the venerable Rusty Scupper may break the budget, other ways to enjoy the restaurant and the viewinclude the Sunday jazz brunch and happy hour in the bar. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, get specials like a $5.50 glass of wine, a $3.50 bottle of beer or a cocktail like a $6 apple martini with a $10 crab cake or a $5 salad with salmon (for an additional $5).

As we proceeded through our unhurried meal, dusk turned to night, adding twinkling lights to the outdoor landscape. We were sated, gastronomically and visually.

The promenade beckoned for a stroll.

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Rusty Scupper

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Where: 402 Key Highway

Contact: 410-727-3678, rusty-scupper.com

Open: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. brunch and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. dinner Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers, $12-$20; entrees, $20-$55.

Food: Mostly seafood with several meat offerings.

Noise/TVs: Two TVs in the bar; it's easy to hold a conversation.

Service: Our server was charming and amiable, though he seemed overwhelmed by the number of tables he was juggling.

Parking: Garage parking, discounted with a stamped ticket.

Special diets: Can accommodate.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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