When veteran restaurateur and chef Robert Kinkead decided to open a seafood restaurant in Annapolis where Phillips was, the news created quite a stir. After all, his Washington establishment, Kinkead's, has been one of D.C.'s best-known eating places for decades.
Here was someone with a known record coming in, taking over a dead space and planning to offer fresh, classic American seafood dishes, everything local when possible. It would be less expensive than his original restaurant, but the quality would be the same. The attention-getting name, Hell Point, came from the neighborhood, which used to be a working-class district.
The space is huge, and when I talked to Kinkead over the phone this summer, he said it was in good shape and he didn't make major renovations. Besides redoing the bathrooms and kitchens, the changes were mostly cosmetic. The rooms are minimalist, decorated in cream and dark green, with a curved stairway to the upstairs dining room an eye-catching feature. There are some nautical pictures on the walls, but the view of the water (and, sadly, the parking lot) is the most important part of the decor.
It was dark and chilly the night we ate there, and downtown Annapolis and its restaurants were dead. Kinkead's was no exception. Our waitress blamed the lack of customers on the recent end of daylight saving time. The wait staff didn't have many people to take care of, and we benefited; that could change when business picks up in better weather.
Maybe the difference between a D.C. restaurant and a Maryland one is that you don't have to have a crab cake on the menu of the former. Kinkead said that the crab cake at Hell Point was by far the best seller on the menu, while in Washington the crab cake did well but wasn't a star.
It's a fine crab cake. Worth $32 for a crab cake dinner? That's for you to decide. Made with local crab whenever possible, it contains just enough binder, mayonnaise and seasonings to let the crab meat shine through. What made it for me, though, was a fine-grain mustard sauce the smooth consistency of hollandaise. A white-corn relish added fresh, vinegary notes.
Appetizers, including one of those crab cakes, were the highlight of our meal. Plump, grit-free mussels swam in their shells in a coconut milk broth with yellow curry spicing and small cubes of potato. Thai spicing, like ginger and lemongrass, kicked the sauce up a notch.
Crispy Thai squid is a variation on fried calamari that was even better than the original. The crisp, tender rings were delicious on their own, or they could be dipped in a not-too-fiery lime-chile vinegar sauce. A "slaw" made with green papaya and cilantro added an intriguing freshness to the dish.
The one glitch was the stuffed quahogs. The half-shells were what are stuffed, with a mix of finely chopped clams, chorizo, onion and seasoning. They weren't bad, but it seemed pointless - no seafood could be identified in the dish.
Lobster rolls are something of a Kinkead signature dish, and if you can get over the sticker shock of paying $25 for a sandwich, you'll be happy with the succulent pieces of lobster meat tossed lightly with mayonnaise and not much else. The lobster roll comes with thin, crisp, freshly fried fries and good coleslaw made in house.
The two fish dishes we tried showed the unevenness of the kitchen. Grilled tuna, served quite rare, was impressively fresh and generously portioned. It hardly needed the bit of black olive sauce on the side. Fennel with golden raisins was too sweet to go with the fish, and the roast fingerling potatoes too ordinary.
Flounder fried in a tough cornmeal crust was simply a bad idea. The fish itself was fine and fresh, but even if you got through the crust, the Tasso ham infused it and the butter sauce with its assertive flavor. You might as well be eating a slice of ham. The artichoke hearts, potatoes and shrimp that came with it, on the other hand, were lively accompaniments.
Hell Point's scallops were perfectly cooked, but the rest of the plate was better suited to pot roast: a bed of parsnip puree, a brown butter sauce that was almost a gravy, onions and mushrooms. Some of the combinations that come out of the Hell Point kitchen that are meant to surprise and delight are merely confusing. This was one of them.
End your meal with the restaurant's good coffee and consider your dessert choices carefully. They are made in house and are mostly too large not to share. The pear tart tatin, for instance, which takes 10 minutes to bake, has four small pear halves on the round of puff pastry. Hot caramel sauce, unfortunately, was applied with a ladle.
Order the chocolate pot de creme and you get a bonus: a creme brulee by its side. It's too much. The pumpkin roll with cream cheese filling is something like a carrot cake, only with ice cream on the side. Only the Eastern Shore caramel cake, a multilayer cake that's more French pastry than Smith Island look-alike, seems made for one.
Hell Point Seafood has been open since this summer, and my sense is that it doesn't have its owner's full attention anymore. Too bad. The potential for a great meal is there. The service is good, if a little amateurish, and I can't complain about the pace of the meal. (Our appetizers hit the table mere moments after we ordered them.) But somehow we didn't end up with a dinner I'd be willing to drive 45 minutes for again.
Hell Point Seafood
Where:: 12 Dock St., Annapolis
Appetizers:: $9-$16, main courses: $14-$32
Hours:: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
Food:: ** (2 stars)
Service: : *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]