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Smooth sailing on the waterfront

Sometimes being part of a chain is a good thing. I feel guilty saying that, given how much I like independent eating places, but it's nice to see a new restaurant hit the ground running. Six weeks or so after Pier 4 Kitchen + Bar opened next to the National Aquarium, things are going remarkably smoothly.

I imagine it doesn't hurt that its parent company, the Chicago-based Restaurant Development Group, has opened 36 other restaurants nationwide, with various concepts. The concept of this one is pretty simple: seafood and bar food. A few specialty martinis are thrown in for good measure.

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The name doesn't lead to unrealistic expectations, always a point in a restaurant's favor. It's actually a pretty good description of the place. Pier 4 Kitchen + Bar is exactly that, a large bar with an open kitchen. The "Pier 4" part acknowledges that it's on the water. The plus sign instead of an "and" lets you know they're going for a little New York chic.

Lots of money has been spent here, and well spent. I like the way the large windows open to create the effect that you're eating outside next to the water even when you're inside. There's also an appealing patio area with umbrella tables and potted plants. It overlooks a bit of the harbor, the aquarium and Pier 5 across the way.

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Inside are high ceilings and exposed pipes, booths covered in leather, lots of mahogany, mounted fish and tasteful fish prints. It's stylish, but in a muted way, as though the designer knew that the waterfront location was the real draw.

Follow your instincts and order seafood here. The raw bar is pricey but worth it. Tiny, slithery-sweet raw oysters come with all the trappings, including seafood and mignonette sauces. The crab cake, which is broiled and can be had as either an appetizer or main course, is plump with lots of lump crab meat; but the kitchen doesn't believe a crab cake should be just crab meat. That's the right attitude, to my mind. I like a bit of filler and seasoning.

The menu boasts quite a lot of grilled seafood, made more interesting by what comes with it. Often a seafood place's idea of a vegetable is french fries. Not so here. Grilled salmon appears with zucchini, tomato and roasted garlic; grilled scallops, with Smithfield ham, green beans, wild mushrooms and "lemon dust."

The kitchen does do sauces. Trout fillet with a subtle golden crust of ground hazelnuts has a delicate, creamy sauce -- just too much of it. The plate is jazzed up with a scattering of corn kernels, a cornmeal pudding, and tomatoes. Fat shrimp wrapped in bacon, memorable on their own, are made more so by their pesto sauce, smooth parmesan-flavored polenta and flavorful grilled tomatoes.

Pier 4 does offer other things besides seafood. The special one night was a fat filet mignon, a fine piece of beef : tender, nicely charred and rosy-centered as ordered. It was perched on top of a soft mound of mashed potatoes flanked by slim spears of asparagus.

Desserts may surprise you. I expected a chocolate concoction and there was one, although its mousse-like center was lighter and creamier than I thought it would be. What I didn't expect was sorbets made on the premises in flavors like lemon, raspberry and coconut. And I certainly didn't expect a shortcake of mixed berries on a short, sweet biscuit decorated with fresh mint leaves and creme anglaise.

Slips by the kitchen were few and far between. (With one exception. Whoever came up with the idea of serving honey-garlic butter with the bread must have been on drugs.) The service was smooth as well, also with one exception. When my friend asked for a recommendation of a wine by the glass, the waitress suggested one that cost $11.

And one final note: Pier 4 Kitchen + Bar is tricky to find if you haven't been there. The entrance isn't right on Pratt Street as the address suggests. We parked at the lot near Power Plant Live a couple of blocks away and approached the restaurant from the back of the Power Plant. It's at the far end of the building. You could also park across the bridge on Pier 5.

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Pier 4 Kitchen + Bar

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 621 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

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Prices: Appetizers, $7.95-$12.95; main courses, $12.95-$25.95 (for two)

Call: 410-659-1200

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


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