A little over a year ago the Scarlett Cove Cafe opened in the Inner Harbor. It got excellent reviews from critics as a restaurant that out-Tio-Peped even Tio Pepe.
High praise, but not surprising because Tio Pepe chef Angel Sanz had left Baltimore's most popular Spanish restaurant (maybe its most popular restaurant, period) to run the Scarlett Cove Cafe's kitchen.
In the year since it opened, though, things have changed at the Scarlett Cove Cafe. Mr. Sanz moved uptown to a place at Charles and 27th streets, Hacha's Deep Sea Grill. Antonio Oritz and Wilson Rodriguez have taken over the kitchen. It's a different restaurant.
Different restaurant, but the same menu. This was my first visit to the Scarlett Cove Cafe, but I gather it's the menu used when Mr. Sanz was chef because his name has been blacked out throughout. (Not the most elegant way to erase his presence, but . . . )
That was a little worrisome: Should we order the specialties of the chef if he was no longer the chef? Should we order from the specials of the day, presumably the "new" chefs' choices? We ended up doing a little of both and letting our waiter, who had definite opinions about what and what not to order, guide us.
What we ended up with was a lackluster meal. Some parts of it were good, none of it great. Some indifferent, none of it downright bad. The problem is that when three people spend around $100 on food alone, they want more than just OK.
The menu has a Spanish accent, but I wouldn't describe the Scarlett Cove Cafe as a Spanish restaurant. Befitting its location on the water, it has a variety of raw bar items and lots of seafood. While the house specialty is paella, you can also get crab cakes, crab imperial and soft shell crabs meuniere in season. I like the nod to those with special dietary needs: The kitchen offers a main course vegetable plate and also a "Diet Dish," poached fish and vegetables prepared without butter or oil.
Best of our first courses was shrimp in garlic sauce ($5.95), the firm shrimp awash in a dark, intense sauce in which garlic was only one of several complex flavors. Fried calamari ($6.50) tasted great, if a little salty, but there were so many tender rings in their light, crisp coating you could hardly call it an appetizer. The soup of the day was cream of crab ($4.25), a full-bodied Mediterranean version generously endowed with crab.
Paella ($16.75) is a specialty, but I can't recommend it. The requisite ingredients were there -- the shellfish, chorizo, chicken, the rice and green peas. But it was tired. The ingredients were a little overcooked and dry -- without the pizzazz the dish has at its best. If you want Spanish, try instead the zarzuela Catalana ($18.25), with clams and mussels in their shells, scallops and shrimp over rice, finished off with a lobster sauce infused with brandy.
The best of our three main courses was the simplest: an enormous veal chop ($22), tender and just pink. The sauce was expertly done, barely more than the pan juices, but very good. Too bad the plain boiled potatoes had been overcooked, while the carrots and Italian green beans were downright mushy.
Desserts are made on the premises except for the cheesecakes. Yes, they have cake rolls; we tried the pine nut ($4), which wasn't worth the price of admission, and a deeply chocolate, moist chocolate mousse cake roll ($4), which was -- in spite of what looked like Hershey's syrup poured over it. The flan ($3.25) is a good bet if you want something lighter.
As for atmosphere, the dining room is more like a hotel's than a cafe's, done up in greens and dusty pinks, with low ceilings and mirrors. But the tables are handsomely set and spaced well apart, and the floor-to-ceiling windows give an excellent view of Pier 5 and the harbor. The service was fine, without people falling over themselves to show us how attentive they were.
These days if you expect customers to flock to your restaurant you have to carve out an identity for yourself. Right now dinner at the Scarlett Cove Cafe isn't a memorable experience, although with entrees ranging from $9.75 to $28.95, getting the check may be.
Scarlett Cove Cafe, President and Pratt streets, (410) 783-8760. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: no.Next: Harvey's