Food ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)
Service *** (3 STARS)
Atmosphere *** (3 STARS)
The Crackpot in Bel Air, a sibling to the Baltimore institution of the same name, looks like it belongs in a marina. You expect to see the water from the windows. Of course, what you actually see is a parking lot and a Target, but the illusion is good.
When the owners of the original Crackpot decided to expand after 28 years, they spared no expense. This is a crab house deluxe, with two kitchens, an interior waterfall and fishpond, and its own seafood market. The central lounge, ringed with dining rooms, has a stainless-steel island bar. Tres chic.
Still, people come here to whack away with their wooden mallets on the biggest steamed crabs imaginable, offered year round. When we were there, their sizes ranged from 35s to 80s (that's price per dozen, for those of you who aren't up on your crab house lingo).
How could we pass up $80 crabs? Or rather, one $6.66 crab, which was big enough to be an appetizer. (But at that price you might expect it to be scarily big, and it wasn't.)
The Crackpot knows how to steam crabs so they aren't mushy, and the seasoning is the restaurant's own recipe, not just another dose of Old Bay.
Except for the extra-jumbo steamed crabs, prices are moderate at this family-oriented seafood place. For $23.25, for instance, you get two fat crab cakes -- each 6 ounces of jumbo lump -- with two sides. (Yes, $23.25 is moderate these days.) Crab cakes are the house specialty, and you can have them 10 different ways.
Hawaiian crab cakes with ham and pineapple, anyone?
I'm a purist, so about as far as I'm willing to venture from the original is a "Smokehouse Crab Cake," which involves a little hickory-smoke seasoning. These are good, with the proper balance of crab and enough binder to hold it together, but I think I'd still prefer the original.
I'd actually recommend having your crab with shrimp here, because while the place specializes in crab, it's the shrimp I'll remember. We ended up getting these enormous beauties in several different ways: perfectly steamed and chilled in a shrimp cocktail appetizer; as part of a daily special; and broiled and stuffed with crab imperial, which I liked even better than the crab cakes. The firm pink shrimp topped with lumps of crab in a rich mayonnaise-based imperial had a retro appeal that would be hard to beat.
Retro is the way to go here. The fried flounder fillet under "Fresh Fish Entrees" was large and handsome, golden-crusted, and practically grease-free. It's when the kitchen ventures away from these tried-and-true dishes that things get a little problematic.
I didn't expect to see a dish like Tuna Poulan on the specials menu, described as "yellowfin ahi tuna steak with marinated skewered shrimp topped with wasabi whipped cream." (No, it wasn't sweetened.) The tuna steak was large and thin when it needed to be thick. Somehow the kitchen managed to keep it rare, but you don't get quite the same seared exterior. The dish's shrimp overshadowed the tuna. They were large and brightly seasoned with accents of lemon and spice, and grilled just long enough to give them a hint of char. Next time I'll order the Tuna Poulan and tell the waiter to hold the tuna and the wasabi whipped cream.
The vegetable of the day was Dijon green beans, which came in a thick mustard cream that tasted OK but wasn't very visually appealing. The simple fresh broccoli, potato salad, potatoes mashed with the skins and coleslaw are better bets.
As for first courses, if one crab isn't enough for you (and it is a messy way to start dinner), try one of the traditional soups. The cream of crab looked suspiciously thick, but it turned out to be full of lump crab, served very hot, and not over-salted. Clams casino, on the other hand, are made with the Crackpot's own recipe, which seems to involve bacon, cheese and grit.
The waiter had a long list of desserts to recite, most of which aren't made in house. It went something like this: "Cherry pie, apple pie, cheesecake, cup of dirt, derby pie ... "
Whoa, partner. Run that one by us again?
It turned out he said "cup o' dirt," made with alternating layers of chocolate and vanilla pudding, Oreo cookie crumbs and, best of all, four gummi worms. There was a creme brulee on the daily specials menu, but, hey, you can get creme brulee anywhere. If you need something a little more, well, adult, try the derby pie, a rich pecan confection made even richer by the addition of hot fudge sauce.
The Crackpot in Bel Air is an updated version of the restaurant on Loch Raven Boulevard that has legitimate claim to the overused phrase "Baltimore institution." But in spite of the more spacious and impressive surroundings, you should stick with what the original restaurant is known for: steamed crabs, crab cakes, and classic Maryland dishes. There's even a crab fluff, which you should probably try once in your life as a Marylander. Every city in America seems to have a crab cake these days, but surely the crab fluff -- a crab cake battered and deep fried -- is unique to Maryland, and a welcome antidote to the ubiquitous, oh-so-good-for-you broiled crab cake.
Go online to get a preview of next Sunday's restaurant review at Dining@Large, Elizabeth Large's restaurant blog (baltimoresun.com/diningatlarge).
Address: 510 Marketplace Drive, Bel Air
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily, for brunch Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$24.95; entrees, $12.95-$38.95
[Outstanding: *** (4 STARS) Good: *** (3 STARS) Fair or Uneven:
** (2 STARS) Poor: * (1 STAR)