Just when I start telling people what a sophisticated restaurant city Baltimore has become, I notice that just about the only places that are packed night after night are the pubs.
This is not a bad thing. Baltimore's pubs, the good ones, have a sort of straightforward approach to eating, drinking and being merry that's appealing after a few meals of pan-seared Chilean sea bass with crispy fried sugar snap peas and roasted saffron Roma tomatoes with basil aioli.
Which brings us to the Claddagh Pub in Canton.
Its food was good if basic when it opened four years ago, and success hasn't spoiled it. Recently the pub added a new, more formal dining room ("more formal" being a relative term); the kitchen seems to be handling the extra tables just fine. That's important because if every bar stool and every table in the three dining rooms is taken on a middle-of-the-week night, I can only imagine how busy the place is on a weekend.
In spite of the crowd that night and the fact that one waiter hadn't shown up for work, the service was excellent. Our waiter was waiting tables in two different dining rooms and still managed to do a good job.
The new dining room is more formal in the sense that there are white tablecloths on the tables and it has a themed decor: Drawings and photographs of Irish musicians decorate the walls, along with harps, fiddles and other instruments. But the decor also includes a TV tuned to ESPN. (Because it's the more formal dining room, the sound isn't turned on.) And the tables are so snugly spaced together you'll quickly get friendly with your neighbors; no gracious spacing here.
The Claddagh Pub's current menu is more elaborate and prices are higher than four years ago, but a meal here is still a bargain. Although the draw is good-quality beef -- strip steak, prime rib, filet mignon -- there are plenty of other choices (sandwiches, salads, some seafood and random entrees like meatloaf and Cajun chicken).
Wednesday is "Beef Night," our waiter told us. We couldn't pass up the 14-ounce prime rib for $13.99, normally $17.99. It was a handsome slab of beef, well-marbled and flavorful. But I don't know why its exterior was gray while the interior was medium rare as ordered unless the slices are cooked individually. The beef came with mashed potatoes -- creamy, perfectly seasoned and studded with bits of skin -- and a mix of properly cooked (i.e., not overcooked) fresh vegetables.
But to begin at the beginning, appetizers here tend to be pub grub -- buffalo wings and crab dip. We decided against them in favor of two specials that night, stuffed mussels and a portobello napoleon.
What made the latter so appealing was that the two mushroom caps were layered with huge lumps of crab; a buttery, silky sauce whispered its presence rather than overwhelmed. The mushroom was arranged at the center of some pretty greens subtly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. Artistic squiggles of red pepper coulis decorated the large white plate.
The baked mussels didn't rise to quite the same heights, but the bread crumbs on top were so artfully seasoned, the mussels themselves so clean and plump, and the slivers of salami (which sounded like a bad idea when our waiter told us about them) were so discreet a presence -- well, we polished the generous serving off.
Even a cup of crab soup impressed me. We had to send it back to be warmed up, but the tomato-based broth had a wonderful homemade flavor that wasn't the usual Old Bay seasoning, it wasn't overfilled with overcooked vegetables, and -- best of all -- it held more of those big lumps of crab meat.
Crab also featured prominently in our most impressive entree. An orange roughy fillet was curled around more of those snowy lumps. Its lobster sauce had great finesse, and how could anyone not love the looks of this dish? Slivers of colorful fresh vegetables spilled along the fillet, from curls of bright-red pepper to a shaving of fresh white corn.
Rack of lamb is one of two signature dishes on the menu, which changes every couple of months or so, our waiter told us. The pink-centered little chops were lean and juicy, with a wonderfully aromatic brown sauce that had notes of garlic, rosemary and whiskey. (Irish, I presume.)
But you don't have to order something this extravagant. Salads feature fresh greens and good dressings. A marinated chicken breast sandwich made one of my friends happy. She ordered it blackened; the two boneless breast halves on the good roll had quite a kick. Only the french fries were merely ordinary.
Desserts are given short shrift at Claddagh Pub. This evening there were only two. The waiter warned us to pick the chocolate peanut butter pie over the pecan pie. We, of course, tried them both. His recommendation disappeared quickly, but the uninspired pecan pie sat there mostly uneaten.
Where: 2918 O'Donnell St.
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; main courses, $11.95-$18.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *