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Turtle Bay Grill, 118 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley Mall, (410) 584-2625. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$8.95; entrees, $7.95-$19.95. **

Turtle Bay Grill has all the right ideas. It just isn't pulling them off.

The new restaurant in the Hunt Valley Mall -- in the space where the Sir Walter Raleigh Inn used to be -- is in the oh-so-successful category of restaurants like T.G.I.Friday's and Ruby Tuesday that offer casual American fare in a casual American setting.

The menu specializes in the food America loves best: nachos and wings, hamburgers and pastas, grilled food and main-course salads. The restaurant has its own smoker, turning out everything from homemade sausage to baby back ribs.

Portions are huge. The price is right.

Plus the Turtle Bay Grill has the best saltwater aquarium in Maryland outside of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Of course, you may find it a little off-putting to watch the velvet-skinned nurse shark stalking the glittering tropical fish. (He did eat the most beautiful one, the hostess told us.) Nothing happened while we were there; I just felt a little uneasy.

Turtle Bay Grill's decor is tropical, with that wonderful fish tank, lots of green and lots of plants. But the dining room also has a bit of a Southwestern feel to it: The walls in back are terra cotta, tables are covered in black and white checked oilcloth and cactuses decorate the window ledges.

The staff is friendly and competent.

So why didn't we have a great time?

Read on.

I got a little worried from the moment the waitress put chips and salsa on the table. The chips were unpleasantly greasy. I didn't think much of their banana salsa, either. Somehow the combination of chopped banana and raw onion just didn't work for me.

I changed my mind, though, with the arrival of one of our first courses, jerk chicken skewers. Banana salsa may not have been quite right with chips, but the fruit took the edge off the fiery Jamaican spices covering the tender chicken.

I also liked a starter called "Cajun catfish fingers." The sweet, mild fish was fried in a light cornmeal batter with a piquant Louis dressing (something like thousand island) for dipping. Things were looking up: Maybe the chips were an aberration.

Indeed, the chips that were the base of the Cancun nachos weren't greasy. This was an enormous mound of food, starting with blue and regular tortilla chips, which were piled with cheeses, black beans, olives, salsa and the like. It's not exactly my idea of an appetizer; it's more like a meal for four.

It wasn't until our main courses arrived that we ran into serious problems. The Turtle Bay smokehouse sampler, which they don't exactly give away, had a quarter chicken, sausage, ribs and fish. (Our waitress told us it was mahi-mahi.) The chicken I would order again; it was juicy and had a nice smoky flavor. But the sausage tasted as if it was all cereal -- no meat and hardly any seasonings at all. Baby back ribs were strangely white and had very little taste. The fish was overcooked salmon, not mahi-mahi. What saved the platter was that we had asked for an assortment of Turtle Bay Grill's good sauces -- barbecue sauces from the Carolinas and Hawaii, the Louis dressing and a couple of others I couldn't identify.

One of us ordered mussels over angel-hair pasta, a special that ** evening. The mussels were fine, but the pasta was mushily overcooked and the cream sauce heavily spiked with Pernod -- )) not to my taste, anyway.

I had ordered another special, grilled salmon with a navel orange and kalamata olive sauce. You can imagine my surprise when the fish arrived on a bed of watercress with no sauce in sight. It didn't have that wonderful freshness salmon sometimes has, and I wouldn't have grilled it as long, but it was OK. When I asked the waitress about the sauce, she disappeared and came back a good while later with a small plate containing sauteed red pepper strips, some navel orange sections and sliced black olives. Odd.

As for the supporting cast: Garlicky mashed potatoes were good, but their gravy was inedibly salty. A green salad with tomatoes had that pleasant Louis dressing and was enough for all three of us. The seasoned rice with black beans and the coleslaw had no particular taste. And we never got any bread -- maybe the chips and salsa were supposed to substitute.

On to dessert. I've heard that cookies are making a comeback at chichi restaurants, but this is the first time I've seen candy on a menu. Specifically, turtles (the chocolate-coated pecan and caramel confection), which according to our waitress are served at the Turtle Bay Grill on a plate decorated with chocolate syrup. That night, though, the kitchen had run out of them.

I doubt if we're seeing a trend here. What it probably means is that people want a little sweet when they go out, but maybe can't handle something like the turtle mud ice cream pie, which was very good but very filling. Or the apple pie, courtesy of Ms. Desserts, covered with whipped topping.

Whatever you do, avoid the plantain fritters. These were crunchy and fried in grease that had seen better days. For some reason, a couple of fried orange slices had been thrown in for good measure, and the whole thing had been covered with an ocean of caramel sauce and a Cool Whip-type topping. Carefully laid on this mess were two slices of beautifully ripe, fresh-tasting mango. Go figure.

Next: Mount Washington Tavern

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