Rusty Scupper, 402 Key Highway, Inner Harbor Marina, (410) 727-3678. Open every day for dinner, Mondays to Saturdays for lunch, Sundays for brunch. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.25-$6.95; entrees: $12.95-$21.95. I get so many calls asking for the name of a good seafood restaurant -- preferably on the water -- that I decided I ought to do some research. Watch this space: I may, over the next few months, make my way through the seafood places around the harbor.
And then again, after starting with the Rusty Scupper, I may not. Or Rus upper, as the neon sign out front proclaimed. It gave the place a slightly scruffy appearance from the get-go.
Once inside, though, it's hard not to be won over by all the architecture: angles and levels, blond wood, expanses of glass and artfully exposed pipes. It's a handsome space, built to let every seat in the house have a view of the harbor. And a great view it is, especially on a misty fall evening, with dusk coming on fast. You can watch the boats gliding out of the harbor, and the gulls circling, and then suddenly it's dark and the city lights are twinkling in the distance.
It wasn't the Rusty Scupper's fault that we happened to be seated next to a table with a screaming kid. But food and drink would have calmed our jangled nerves, and that we didn't get. We were seated at 7 and by 7:30 finally got a glass of wine and a couple of beers. The first rolls appeared at 7:45.
The staff is extremely nice, so it's hard to work up any real outrage. But I came close when four or five waiters and busboys stood chitchatting near us while we waited to have our table cleared. Even then the table wasn't wiped off. As my friend said when he went to work with his napkin, "I know we made the mess ourselves, but still . . . "
All would be forgiven, though, if the food were great. It wasn't.
That's not quite true; the oysters Rockefeller came close to greatness. Five plump, fresh mollusks were nestled in spinach and topped with a swirl of imperial sauce. That last may have been gilding the lily, but sometimes overkill works very well, thank you.
And calamari came in tender rings, sweet and mild with a crisply fried, almost grease-free coating. So far, so good, but the Rusty Scupper seems to have trouble with its Maryland specialties. You had to search long and hard to find any crab in the Maryland crab soup, which was chock-full of vegetables and almost too peppery to eat.
Equally disappointing were the crab cakes -- which, as you might expect, the Rusty Scupper wasn't giving away. They had nice lumps of crab meat, but few and far between. The breading (which wasn't particularly well-seasoned) dominated them. With the crab cakes came pedestrian rice and a mixture of zucchini, squash, broccoli and cauliflower -- undercooked (and I don't like vegetables overcooked) with no seasonings, no butter, nothing.
For some reason, the kitchen did better with dishes that should have been more difficult to produce. Scallops St. Jacques were fat and fresh, with a smooth cream sauce that wasn't too thick and just the right amount of bread crumbs. Too bad they come with the same dull accompaniments as the crab cakes.
Blackened salmon worked pretty well, too. The fish was fresh and not overcooked. The promised mango salsa was chopped red peppers, onions and mango that was a bit too green for my taste. More zucchini, etc., and rice.
Salads are extra. The house salad was unmemorable except that I had asked for the dressing on the side and it came globbed on top -- as much dressing as lettuce. Much better was a pretty little Caesar salad with freshly grated Parmesan.
Desserts run to the rich and ruinous, like the Nestle Toll House pie, which is essentially a giant chocolate chip cookie cut in pie slices and accompanied by a scoop of ice cream. Good, but not as subtle as the upside down apple walnut pie, which had a fine crust and a fresh-tasting, flavorful filling. The chocolate mousse tastes like fudge cake, not chocolate mousse, but chocoholics will enjoy it.
Now here's my last complaint of the evening. When I called to make reservations, the hostess gave me directions saying, "Turn off Key Highway into our parking lot." But when we tried to present the parking ticket to have it validated, the waiter looked at us blankly and explained that the Rusty Scupper has no connection with the parking lot in front of the restaurant. The city owns it. No big deal; it wasn't a lot of money ($3). But it was mildly irritating.