A funny thing happened to the Nickel City Grill on the way to becoming one of Baltimore's trend-setting new restaurants. It became more of a bar, less of a restaurant.
At first it was a grill that specialized in contemporary American food, pink peppercorns and all, with entrees costing as much as $22. Now it's a moderately priced spot to get pastas, salads, sandwiches and Southwestern fare -- a place to watch the game at the bar while you have a beer. The menu has been pared down, and it looks like the owners have learned what sells in Baltimore, or at least at Harborplace. And I gather it's not pink peppercorns and sun-dried tomatoes.
There's more of a party atmosphere than I remember, including the model train that runs around the track hanging from the ceiling. It goes by every couple of minutes, and the effect is a little like eating under the El. I'm surprised some cranky diner hasn't put a fork on the track to derail it. (Actually it grows on you after awhile.)
There are other changes: The large dining room has been broken into smaller, and cozier, spaces. The no-smoking section has been moved from the back of the restaurant to the front so you get a view of the harbor even if you don't light up. And I don't mind the changes in the food; there's nothing wrong with bar food if it's done well.
Take the crab cake appetizer. It was large and appealingly uneven, as if actually formed by human hands. There were no lumps of crab, but I liked the proportion of crab to breading and the more-than-usually spicy seasonings. With the coleslaw it comes with and a roll or two, it would be a good light meal by itself.
We enjoyed the tiny popcorn shrimp, an enormous number of them, dipped in a batter and crisply fried. A tomato artichoke bisque, the soup of the day, was unassuming but smooth and flavorful.
Even though the menu discusses the virtues of Maryland bounty length, there's actually more Southwestern food than mid-Atlantic here. The kitchen has a heavy hand with spices; a pretty dish of rigatoni with strips of grilled chicken, peas and tomato sauce was too fiery to eat. A handsome piece of prime rib had been roasted, then grilled with tongue-searing "blackening" seasonings. It would have been better without the unexpected pool of barbecue sauce.
There were other problems. A special of the day, grilled tuna, was impeccably fresh and had a pleasant lemon butter sauce tinged with garlic, but it had been overcooked. All three of our main courses had potential; none was quite as good as it should have been. And vegetables seemed something of an afterthought: squash, onions and green pepper cooked together and a choice of bland rice or roasted potatoes.
Oh, well. So we had more room for dessert. Desserts like Death by Chocolate, which is more fun to order than to eat. But eating it wasn't bad either. Or a warm three-fruit cobbler with apples, peaches and cherries and big scoop of ice cream on top. My favorite, though, was a creamy half-cheesecake, half-pumpkin pie studded with a few tart cranberries.
Nickel City Grill
Where: Lower Level, Pratt Street Pavilion, Harborplace
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Credit cards accepted: Major credit cards
Features: Southwestern cuisine, light fare
Non-smoking section? Yes
Call: (410) 752-0900
B8Prices: Appetizers, $3.25-$8.95; entrees, $10.95-$14.95