I admit that I didn't go into Fin with as open a mind as I should have. I just thought the restaurant's full name, Fin Steak & Seafood, was weird. Shouldn't it be Fin Seafood? Or if beef is an important part of your raison d'etre, shouldn't you call yourself something other than Fin?
But as somebody once said, "What's in a name?" It simply doesn't matter when the kitchen is producing food this good.
From what I can tell, the kitchen of Fells Point's newest fine-dining restaurant is pretty much a one-man show. The man is Avi Cohen, owner/chef. Because of that, I shudder to think what eating at Fin will be like if every table is taken. The dining room was about a third full when we were there, and the wait for both our entrees and dessert was too long.
But on to more positive things. What I like is that Fin has a straightforward menu without much in the way of pretensions, so the elegance of the food comes as something of a surprise. One of the best examples of this is an appetizer: Pink shrimp and snowy scallops lounge together next to a bit of fennel slaw refreshed with orange segments. The components are very pretty against their white plate.
You expect a restaurant this close to the tourist areas to emphasis its crab cakes, and Fin does. The way to experience them if you're not a tourist is with the trio for an appetizer. They are miniatures, made from a basic mix of lump meat, the right seasonings and just enough filler. One is given an Asian flair with sesame seeds and a soy-based sauce, one is southwestern-spicy with a chipotle sauce and one is a classic Maryland cake - what you get if you order the twin 4-ounce crab cakes for dinner.
A roasted portobello mushroom is stuffed with feta and sun-dried tomatoes, then finished off with a roasted red pepper puree and a scattering of pine nuts for crunch. The flavors are distinct but quite complementary.
I'm not a huge chopped salad fan because it never has as much visual appeal as a composed salad; but Fin's combination of romaine, artichoke, hearts of palm, tomato, red onion and Greek olives works so well together, and is so nicely set off by the right amount of lemon dressing, I have to recommend it.
Fin's entree prices, mostly in the $20-$30 range, make this a moderately priced to moderately expensive restaurant. The steaks skew prices upward, but they are very good beef, well-marbled and flavorful, cooked to your exact request with not much more in the way of seasoning than salt, pepper and a sprinkling of parsley. And it's not like the upscale steakhouses. Dinners come with sides, in this case a crisp-edged wedge of potatoes gratin, just out of the oven, and broccolini.
Even better was the double rib pork chop, almost fork tender and slightly pink, with a crust of colored peppercorns that held in the juices. A cloud of mashed potatoes floated nearby, and a little apple slaw rounded out a very fine plate.
But seafood may be the best choice after all. It would be hard to fault the mahi mahi, a special that night, served in a fiery Thai coconut milk sauce, with rice and bok choy. Or the delicate, beautiful cioppino, with shrimp, scallops, clams, calamari and whatever fish is freshest delicately swimming in a saffron-tinged broth with chopped fresh tomatoes.
So why doesn't Fin's food get four stars? I'm afraid our desserts didn't reach the heights of the rest of our meal. The specialty is strawberry shortcake made with grilled pound cake, but the grill marks gave the dessert a faint charred flavor. Bring me instead just the strawberries soaked in balsamic vinegar (yum) with vanilla ice cream and whipped mascarpone.
The white-chocolate banana bread pudding was oddly flavorless and a bit dry, and the creme anglaise was so discreetly applied as to be almost nonexistent. Only the coffee-toffee cheesecake with caramel sauce lived up to its advance billing.
I don't get the feeling that wine is a priority at Fin, at least not yet, but the list is respectable and pretty reasonable; and the selection by the glass is good.
If you know Fin's space, you know it's the basement dining room of the Admiral Fell Inn and has "historic" fieldstone walls, which no one wants to cover up. There's only so much you can do with these two givens. Fin has done its best, although carpeting would be nice for the noise. The look is contemporary but muted, with lots of dark blue and comfortably spaced tables. The Big Band music makes you think of ordering a martini. My big complaint was the cold. Refrigerator cold. I sympathized with the little girl near us who said nothing to her parents through the whole meal that I could hear except, "I'm very tired, and I'm very cold."
This was one of the best meals I've had in a while, and Fin is a great addition to Fells Point. But don't forget the bottom line: If this sounds like a restaurant you want to try, go on an off day at an off hour, or don't say I didn't warn you.
Fin Steak & Seafood
Address:: 888 S. Broadway, Fells Point
Hours:: Open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday
Prices:: Appetizers, : $6-$11; entrees, : $15-$36
Call:: 410-522-2195, fin-restaurant.com
Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor *
Food*** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
Service** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Atmosphere** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Check out restaurant critic Elizabeth Large's daily blog (baltimore sun.com/diningatlarge) for restaurant news and notes and reader feedback. Don't miss Top 10 Tuesdays.