Pier 500 is definitely new Baltimore, but it's a restaurant that all Baltimore can be proud of.
Nestled into the HarborView Marina & Yacht Club, once the site of the Bethlehem Steel Shipyards, this small, contemporary restaurant, operated by chef Connie Crabtree, is somewhat of a pioneer in the reincarnation of Key Highway beyond the Inner Harbor. Rising next to the yacht club is a towering condominium complex -- if you haven't been that way in a while, your jaw will drop. The marina just outside Pier 500's glass walls will eventually harbor hundreds of boats.
Pier 500 may be the only restaurant in Baltimore with a "winter entrance," which is just off the parking lot. In summer, the indoors and out must merge, as the dining room blends into a deck overlooking the marina.
On a winter's night, the marina just beyond our table provided a salve for our tired psyches, as an occasional boat dweller or dreamer slipped by. Inside Pier 500, the atmosphere soothed us, too. The dimly lit L-shaped dining room is cool with sea green and turquoise; candles flicker on the dark green tables and there is a casualness, though not necessarily a quietness, to it all. The palm trees on the walls seemed out of place in Maryland, though they did fit with the seaside ambience.
The menu's offerings are equally appealing. There is nice variety, too, including several salads that would each seem to make the meal, and an entree list that includes grilled mixed vegetables ($9.95) and char-grilled sirloin burger ($9). The lime and chili crab cake sandwich ($9) intrigued me, but I passed -- remembering that other new wave crab cakes had not pleased my traditional palate.
I began with a cup of black bean soup with chili cream ($1.95), and my husband opted for 500's jumbo onion rings ($3.25), which seemed to displease our waiter. Perhaps because the onion rings are listed as a side dish on the menu, he did not think them appropriate for openers. We found them enjoyable -- tender and juicy inside, crispy out. We found him haughty.
The soup, swirled with cream, was heavy with cumin, though overall a bit bland for black bean.
Both of us liked our salads: 500's Caesar ($4.95) and mixed greens with julienne cucumbers, carrots, red onions and walnuts ($3.75). My husband's Caesar, with pine nuts and olives, was certainly non-traditional. Though served with a Parmesan dressing, it was light on cheese flavor. Very good, yes, but not the classic Caesar.
The mixed greens were beautiful, topped with strands of carrot, onion and a crunchy white vegetable that the waiter said was squash. The balsamic vinaigrette -- one of seven homemade dressings -- had a rich, oily flavor.
For entrees, I chose sauteed fillet of sole on steamed spinach ($15.95) and my husband picked one of the night's specials, scallops in roasted garlic and thyme sauce over spinach linguine ($14.95).
The sole, marked on the menu as one of the entrees low in fat and sodium, was delightful to look at and to taste. The fillet was thick, yet tender, and enhanced by an orange saffron beurre blanc, which was buttery but not sweet. I've seldom had sole this good. It was served with couscous, not common on most restaurant menus, and five of the skinniest asparagus stalks I've ever seen. They were tough.
The scallops had been deeply browned around the edges and were cooked just right. They were served over delicious homemade pasta in a buttery sauce. This, too, was a beautiful dish.
We asked our waiter to recommend a dessert for us to share, but he wouldn't choose between the cappuccino cream cake ($4) and the Linzer torte ($4), so we ordered one of each, and were not disappointed. The servings were small, but when we tasted how rich the desserts were, we knew we'd been given enough. The Linzer torte had a lovely layer of chocolate on top that made it especially indulgent.
Although our waiter was efficient, we found him the one sour note of the evening. He was snide and seemed unhappy to be serving us -- from the onion rings on. The busboy, on the other hand, was one of the best we've encountered; he was unusually friendly and accommodating, and seemed quite happy to be serving us, as did the hostess and the bartender.
Our bill, with two cocktails, two coffees ($1.25 each) and a spectacular Alsatian Gewurztraminer ($16), was just about $82.
If only the waiter and the busboy had switched places . . .
1225 Key Highway
Hours: Lunch served Mondays through Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner served Sundays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Mondays from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: No separate areas designated.