Luna del Sea Bistro is a relatively new restaurant, but when you enter its doors you will take a step back in time. Remember Thompson's Sea Girt House? It's like that, only crossed with one of our venerable Little Italy restaurants. And include a dash of Tio Pepe minus the great desserts.
In spite of the name, in spite of its looks, this is the traditional Maryland seafood restaurant an awful lot of folks have been waiting for. The menu is an almost endless recitation of crab soup, oysters Rockefeller, crab imperial, crab cakes, lobster, seafood combination platters and stuffed shrimp. What you won't find is any fish you won't recognize and wouldn't recognize a decade ago. And for a final retro touch, the baked potato comes in foil.
The kitchen knows what it's doing. The crab is jumbo lump, the crab cakes weigh in at half a pound each, the shrimp are extra large, and the seafood is very fresh. There's no stinting on cream or butter just because this is 2004. The Luna del Sea bisque, for instance, seduces with a soup bowl full of blush-pink cream plumped up with shrimp, scallops and lump crab. Even something as simple as the house salad uses noticeably fresh greens.
The kitchen blackens salmon but manages to keep it firm and moist, with the spice-laden crust jumpstarting what can be a pretty ordinary fish. More impressively, the rockfish fillet isn't overcooked either, even though it's part of a broiled seafood combination platter. These platters are always in danger of going awry if the cook concentrates on the showier items. The fish manages to hold its own among the rich sweetness of the crab imperial, the snow-white scallops and juicy pink shrimp.
Luna del Sea marinara is a pleasingly understated version of this Italian classic, with the marinara sauce a mere whisper among the strands of pasta, leaving the shrimp, scallops and mussels room to shine. The mussels swimming in a thickened garlic sauce aren't quite so successful. The sauce is more along the lines of Tio's garlic sauce for shrimp than the usual white wine, butter and garlic, but without as much kick as the Spanish version. The vegetable of the day, too, is reminiscent of Tio Pepe. The whole green beans, a great plate of them, are buttery and fresh.
If all this sounds too good to be true, it is. The problem is that the prices aren't retro. I realized we were in trouble when there were no prices on the Today's Specials menu. I was considering one of the signature dishes, the salmon Oscar (salmon, crab meat, broccoli and hollandaise) when I overheard the waitress tell another table it cost $42. I settled for the chicken francaise, also on the specials menu. In this Little Italy-style classic 2 / 3 pounded scallops of boneless chicken breast are dipped in an egg batter and sauteed to a rich gold, then sauced with lemon and white wine. The dish was a mere $27. The prices of the specials appetizers, too, startled us: Four oysters on the half shell, two fat with crab imperial and two with spinach a la Rockefeller, were $22.
That said, the regular menu is more in line with reality. The specials make its $22 for fried shrimp seem almost reasonable.
All this may not matter, of course, if you're on an expense account or celebrating a Ravens win. It's just unexpected for a restaurant near the stadiums that calls itself a bistro. This is an area filled otherwise with bars and pubs. But maybe that's the point. You don't have fine dining around here except for hotel dining rooms, so it's a seller's market.
Luna del Sea Bistro's atmosphere and service also don't suggest an upscale restaurant. The dining room in back is about the size of the bar up front. It has a casual air, in spite of the white tablecloths and Mediterranean decor items like a marble statue, several fluted columns and trailing ivy. The ruined chic look is carried through with a wall painted to look as if the paint has worn away to expose the brick.
Two things would spruce the place up. The huge fish tank that dominates the room needed to be cleaned -- the water was cloudy. And the floor should be swept.
At these prices, I want not only a clean floor, but to be pampered. Our waitress was attentive, and our food came in good order. But she cleared the dishes as she brought the dessert, not before. The water glasses weren't kept filled. And when she picked up the check and my credit card, she said she was taking them then because she needed to get out of there.
Luna del Sea is not a restaurant where dessert is important. The choice was cheesecake or a mushy tiramisu, without much flavor except for the liquor. The cheesecake, though, is creamy and calorie-laden and comes in several intriguing flavors like pumpkin and coconut.
When someone else is paying, the food is good enough that I'd happily eat at Luna del Sea. If I had to be in the stadiums area and wanted more than pub fare, this is where I'd end up in a heartbeat. But if I could eat at any Baltimore restaurant and was paying my own way, this wouldn't be my first choice. Not unless I had an overwhelming urge for Maryland seafood the way it used to be.
Luna del Sea
Service: ** 1/2
Where: 300 West Pratt St., Baltimore
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$15; Entrees: $17-$30 (specials menu higher)
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *