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City Lights: Old favorite keeps on shining

City Lights has become something rare and special: a Baltimore-owned-and-operated restaurant in Harborplace. It's an original tenant, mind you, one that's been in the Light Street Pavilion since it opened in 1980. The place reinvents itself from time to time -- in the past I've reviewed City Lights when it was strictly a seafood restaurant, then almost a pub, then in the late '90s under chef John Maxwell, a family restaurant that also served haute cuisine.

Now, six years later, City Lights seems to have returned to its roots. It's a moderately priced Maryland seafood restaurant again -- maybe because it's having to compete with nationally known chains like the Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen and Phillips for the tourists. The problem is that City Lights doesn't have the name recognition that Phillips, a branch of the Ocean City seafood restaurant, does. When people hear the name Phillips, they say "seafood." When they hear City Lights, they say ... what?

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That's too bad, because as Harborplace eating places go, this is one of the best of the lot. That may sound like faint praise, but I don't mean it to. It's just that City Lights feels a little more anonymous than the other restaurants owned by the local Country Fare Group: Brass Elephant, King's Contrivance, Remomo Cafe Italia and the Milton Inn. Each of them has a distinct personality.

If you're looking for an excellent, moderately priced crab cake, City Lights has one of the best around. It's 5 ounces of lump crab meat with just enough binder and seasonings to shine with character. (You can also get the half-pound version.)

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Nobody asked me how I wanted the soft-shell crab platter on the specials menu, and I didn't think to say. The crabs came heavily battered and fried -- a good, crunchy batter, but heavy frying is a lot to do to a soft-shell.

Both these Eastern Shore favorites are served with a decent coleslaw and nondescript french fries or an ice cream scoopful of mashed potatoes. With this kind of old-fashioned Maryland food, you'd also expect soft store-bought rolls, but surprise! Because of City Lights' upscale connections, the breadbasket is full of great crusty french rolls.

Maryland crab soup arrived well seasoned and with lots of vegetables, but lacking in any real crab meat. The one of us who ordered the crab and spinach dip fared better. It had its fair share of crab, fresh spinach, a delicately creamy texture, a bit of Old Bay seasoning, and crunchy little garlic toasts. It's not, in other words, the usual goopy mess.

When the kitchen ventures farther from the Eastern Shore, the right instincts are there, but it sometimes seems like paint-by-numbers cooking. A pretty little crepe is filled with shrimp, crab and scallops, then bathed in a bit of lobster cream sauce for an outstanding and not-too-filling appetizer. Delicious. The problem comes if you order the mahi mahi Veracruz, a special, to follow the crepe and find that the over- peppered fillet is laid on a pool of the same sauce, not the spicy tomato sauce you'd expect from the name.

Steamed mussels have their own light cream sauce -- superb -- but the mussels themselves were overcooked. The best of the not-traditional-Maryland cooking was crab, shrimp and scallops over fettuccine with a gentle cream sauce and plenty of parmesan cheese on the side.

The dessert tray features elaborate, heavy cakes and a fine light cheesecake. The waiter recommended the brownie, soft and warm, with ice cream, chocolate sauce and, of course, whipped cream. Not exactly what you need after fried soft crabs and french fries, but who cares?

City Lights is a pretty restaurant, with lemon yellow walls and cheerfully set tables. Of course, this time of year everyone is eating outside, which can be hot, noisy and crowded, but -- hey -- that's summer in the Inner Harbor. The servers are good at getting the food out quickly and keeping the water glasses filled. This is a place that's geared to mass production, but then so are all the places down there. It would still be my first choice if visitors from out of town want to eat at Harborplace.

City Lights

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Food: ** 1/2 Service: *** Atmosphere: ***

Where: Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$15.95; Entrees; $13.95-24.95

Call: 410-244-8811


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