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Red Fish swimming in Canton


Don't read too much in the name. While Red Fish does have a New Orleans sound, it's not a Cajun restaurant. And even though the ads for Canton's newest bistro start with "One fish, two fish, Red Fish," the restaurant has no other connection to Dr. Seuss. Owner Michael Stratigareas says he just picked the name because he liked the sound of it.

Red Fish sits on the corner of Montford Avenue and Boston Street in the spot where Weber's and any number of other bar-restaurants have come and gone over the years. It looks great from the outside: The building has been painted a sort of blue-purple, and it's sprinkled with stars. Umbrella tables dot the sidewalk.

Inside looks good, too. The downstairs is divided into a bar on one side and a long, narrow dining room on the other. The upstairs has a common table where you share dishes like paella and clay-pot lamb bake; but as of my visit these dishes, termed "rustic style" on the menu, weren't available yet.

The downstairs dining room is stripped down and handsome, with dark-blue walls, mirrors, pale banquettes and bare floors. It is very, very noisy. Why they continue to play music is beyond me: You can't hear it except during infrequent lulls in the general hubbub, and it just raises the decibel level another notch.

Although Red Fish has been open more than a month, it's still a work in progress. The rustic-style dishes are one example; another is the wine list. At the moment two pinot grigios and a chardonnay are the only whites offered, surprising when so much of the menu is seafood. (Our waiter told us they were working on a more extensive permanent wine list.)

Red Fish's menu is filled with a good balance of jazzed-up bar food and intriguing, Mediterranean-inspired dishes -- the right combination, it seems to me, for Canton. If some of the food seems familiar, it might be because you've been to the Blue Pointe Grille in Ellicott City, which Stratigareas also owns. He brought executive chef Ted Stelzenmuller to Red Fish to run the kitchen.

One dish that came with him is the jumbo shrimp in kataifi, fried to a golden crunch. You dip them in remoulade or a red pepper aioli. They're even better at Red Fish than they were at the Ellicott City restaurant because they aren't greasy.

Other appetizers were erratic. A trio of mushroom caps arrived stuffed with three different and fine toppings: spicy sausage, crab, and spinach and feta. But mussels were overcooked and a bit mushy. Still, their white wine-butter sauce was hard to resist.

For some reason, the dish came with pita instead of the promised French bread. The kitchen doesn't seemed too concerned about unannounced substitutions: We ordered a Greek appetizer of small tyropita (cheese) and spanakopita (spinach) pastries, but all we got was cheese. Good cheese, but no spinach pastries.

Part of Red Fish's charm is that there's so much on the menu for under $10 -- sandwiches, salads and pastas. But there are also entrees that show off the chef's talents, like a fresh rockfish fillet with fennel, lump crab meat and a genteel cream sauce. Plump pink shrimp, slivers of portobello mushrooms, tomatoes and prosciutto made an appealing statement with farfalle pasta.

A filet mignon was a knockout: fat, tender and rosy rare. I wasn't wild about the honey that flavored it, but that was offset by a potent sauce of soy, beer, whiskey and herbs. Wisely the kitchen keeps side dishes simple: Most of the entrees come with homemade mashed potatoes and a vegetable; this night it was tender asparagus spears.

While the family-style dishes aren't available yet, you can get jambalaya for one. The rice is cooked with vegetables and spicy sausage; you choose what else you want with it. That works fine for the shrimp, but the blackened chicken is laid in slices on top and isn't an integral part of the dish.

Some of the desserts are made in-house; some not. I would guess the Key lime pie isn't, but it was actually the most successful of the ones we tried. A pecan tart tasted like liquid brown sugar; a chocolate volcano cake was fine, but not very exciting.

You can tell that Red Fish is still getting its act together -- a little surprising, given that it opened quietly more than a month ago. But apparently it was a hit from the beginning. I suppose if you're slammed night after night, there are going to be glitches. It's a likable restaurant, anyway.

Red Fish

Food: * * 1/2

Service: * * *

Atmosphere: * *

Where: 845 S. Montford Ave., Baltimore

Hours: Dinner daily and Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $5.75-$14; main courses, $9.75-$22.75

Call: 443-524-1454

Outstanding: * * * *; Good: * * *; Fair or uneven: * *; Poor: *

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