If I had to characterize 1998 from a critic's point of view, it would be the Year of the Seafood Restaurant. Conventional wisdom has had it in the past that Baltimore, home of wonderful crab houses, didn't really have one great seafood restaurant. Maybe "great" is too strong a word to describe the new crop that opened in '98, but at least they're good and have lots of potential.
Downtown Baltimore got its version of Boston's Legal Sea Foods in September. Earlier in the year, McCormick & Schmick's arrived in the Inner Harbor. (This is the upscale chain from Oregon.) Both were instant hits.
John Shields, cookbook author and TV show host, opened Gertrude's in the Baltimore Museum of Art with great fanfare and somewhat mixed reviews. But Gertrude's, with its emphasis on Chesapeake seafood, may well be the best of the lot when it gets its act together.
In Annapolis, O'Learys reopened with new owners; and the self-proclaimed seafood-only restaurant is every bit as good as its predecessor. (Not to worry, there is one steak and one chicken dish on the menu.)
Now that I think about it, I could make a case for 1998 being the Year of the Steakhouse. After all, Shula's, with its 48-ounce porterhouse, opened in the Omni downtown. And Lennys Chop House, owned by Lenny Kaplan of Polo Grill fame, can serve up a steak with the best of them. Lennys' seafood isn't bad either.
But if this is the Year of the Steakhouse, where do you put a restaurant like Sin Carne, which opened at the beginning of the year in Pikesville? Billing itself proudly as a "meatless Mexican cantina," it was one of the more interesting newcomers in a year that featured the arrival of big-name chains like ESPNZone and Planet Hollywood in the Inner Harbor.
Italian always seems to do well in the Baltimore-Annapolis area, particularly if it has a bit of an edge, as does the new Mangia Mangia in Canton. Even if you aren't hungry, check out the fabulous mural on the exterior of the building. The opening of the Tuscany Grill (now no longer connected to its parent restaurant Sotto Sopra) brought Timonium sophisticated but casual Italian food. And Aldo's, serving traditional southern Italian food, may well be the prettiest restaurant in Little Italy.
Scirocco Mediterranean Grill in Annapolis became Michaelangelo, with a more upscale Mediterranean menu - bucking a trend. Restaurants have been downscaling if anything (including the aforementioned Tuscany Grill).
One of the most unnoticed openings of the year was Ashley M's, the pleasant little restaurant in Mount Vernon owned by Ed Rogers of La Tesso Tana. A good neighborhood spot, but nice enough for a special occasion.
Another undervalued restaurant is the Cafe Madrid, where M. Gettier's used to be in Fells Point. Here you get lots of Spanish charm, atmosphere and good food.
These were the high spots of 1998, in my opinion, but that doesn't mean there weren't many other openings, including several new Donna's. (It was a year of optimism for potential restaurant owners.) Some of the places are too new for me to have visited yet, like the Austin Grill in Canton and Alexander's in Columbia. Others were reviewed by Kathryn Higham in the Live section of this paper. Next Thursday, she'll give you the lowdown on what happened in casual dining in 1998.
And now we've reached that point you've all been waiting for - I hope: my vote for 1998's Restaurant of the Year.
That honor goes to the Restaurant Columbia in, of all places, Easton. The four-star food is definitely worth the trip. But follow my advice and wear your woollies if you go this winter. It's the coldest I've been in a restaurant in a long time.
L Pasta with broccoli rabe and Italian sausage; fried calamari
* Ashley M's
Alligator with angel hair pasta
* Cafe Madrid
Tapas; cazuela pescador
Burger with grilled red peppers, mushrooms and onions
Crab cakes fixed two ways
* Legal Sea Foods
Lobster, of course
Triple-cut lamb chops; lobster cocktail
* Mangia Mangia
* McCormick & Schmick's
Oyster sampler - six different varieties
House-smoked duck-breast salad
Fillet of halibut with a gremolata crust
* Planet Hollywood
Marinated chicken breasts over red-skinned mashed potatoes
* Restaurant Columbia
Rack of lamb with pistachios and raspberry sauce; French pastries
Prime rib; red velvet cake with vanilla frosting
* Sin Carne
Jumbo lump-crab-meat quesadillas
* Tuscany Grill
Risotto with shrimp and asparagus
Pub Date: 12/27/98