Gertrude's, the new restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art, is a work in progress. You can see the potential, but it isn't there yet.
Give John Shields credit. The cookbook author and TV show host came up with a great idea for his restaurant. Why open just another seafood place when this year we've already seen the arrival of two good ones: McCormick & Schmick's and Legal Sea Foods downtown.
Instead, Shields has Gertrude's firmly grounded in the Chesapeake Bay region. When tourists come to Baltimore and want authentic Maryland seafood, are they going to go to chains from the Northwest and Boston? Or are they going to head for Gertrude's for two different kinds of crab cakes, stuffed rockfish and Chesapeake oyster stew?
Second excellent decision: The menu may sound homey and nostalgic, but the warm, comfortable dining room is gorgeously sophisticated. You'd never guess it from the old-fashioned name - a reference both to Shields' grandmother and to literary figure Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude's is such a pleasant place to be, in fact, and our waitress so nice that we really didn't mind that it took an awfully long time to get the food on the table. What we did mind was that once it got there our meal was surprisingly uneven.
Start with the starters. Oyster stew contained only four very small oysters - they were beautifully sweet and flavorful, but the serving seemed skimpy. Worse, the milky broth had so much spicy seafood seasoning you had to fish the oysters out with a fork to appreciate their subtle flavor.
An "Eastern Shore clam feast" featured clams as rubbery as erasers. Chicken and corn fritters had little smoked chicken and less corn.
A generous portion of Maryland pan-fried chicken was crisply fried, and I liked the flavor cooked celery added to mashed potatoes. But why put so much pepper in them and on the chicken and in the collard greens? (That last to the point where you couldn't eat them.)
True, the stewed tomatoes tasted like old-fashioned, highly seasoned stewed tomatoes, but at that point I was ready for one dish where the taste of the food itself came through. And what happened to the promised buttermilk biscuits?
The rockfish fillet was weighed down with its cornmeal and oyster stuffing. It could have done with half as much, so you could taste the fresh fish and its good red bell pepper sauce.
Of our entrees, only the crab cakes were an unqualified success. Gertrude's offers two choices: an Eastern Shore crab cake, mostly jumbo lump, and Gertie's crab cake, a bit spicier and with a bit more filler. We tried one of each. They weren't radically different, and both were good. Sweet potato fries were nice and crisp but cut so thin not much sweet potato flavor came through. The coleslaw was pedestrian.
On a second visit to the restaurant, we found the Atlantic sole fillet overcooked, and the restaurant's superb crab imperial came to the table stone cold at its center. Both had good vegetables, though: tender-crisp asparagus and, with the crab, julienne carrots; with the sole, whole baby carrots.
Our first courses also made us happy. An assortment of raw oysters on the half shell couldn't have been better. And a subtly spiced pumpkin-carrot soup showed what the kitchen is capable of.
So did the desserts. The Lori tart, a chewy-rich chocolate and orange confection, was out of this world, and an apple "cake" made of layers of crepes and apples with creme anglaise and caramel sauce also delighted us. The poached pear is a pleasant alternative for those wanting something lighter.
We didn't end up ordering dessert on our second visit, though. We got so irritated waiting for our waitress to return after she left us with the dessert menu that when she finally did we simply asked for the check.
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers: $5.25-$11.95; main courses: $11.50-$23
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
Pub Date: 12/06/98