You've seen it. A favorite restaurant gets a new owner, takes on an updated look and hires a new chef. Groaning is heard. "Oh no. There it goes. It'll never be the same."
A similar transformation is underway at O'Leary's Seafood Restaurant across the Eastport Bridge in Annapolis, but without the groaning. O'Leary's new owner, Will Peterson, managed the local dining landmark for nearly a decade. Peterson's renovation will come in stages over the next several months and is aimed at not only a fresh look, but also a more comfortable experience for customers. And the new chef? Ben James Sr., comes from Easton's Tidewater Inn and, judging by our recent visit, may be the best commandant that kitchen ever has seen.
The result? Dinner at O'Leary's is still one of the dining delights of our city. Peterson and James have retained some of the perennially favorite dishes and introduced some easy winners. The ingredients are fresh and top quality, the cooking masterful, and the service engaging and deft.
The three of us arrived at the end of what was alleged to be the hottest day of the year (so far) — the kind of Maryland summer weather that saps the soul and maybe even the appetite. Even with some updating work underway, O'Leary's small dining room, bathed in the early evening sun, felt cool and welcoming.
As at any good restaurant, Beatrice's first task in her stellar performance at our table was tending to our thirst. The formula at O'Leary's simple: a good bartender, a wine list with interesting choices by the glass, half-bottle and bottle, and every beverage served at just the right temperature.
Appetizers can easily be shared at O'Leary's, and should be. Our trio tried the Grilled Oysters ($12), the Spanish Terrine ($13) and Scallop En Croute ($15). The four oysters were simply prepared with herb butter and Asiago, Romano and Parmesan cheeses — good sidekicks for the briny mollusks.
The Spanish Terrine really was a layered salad, light and refreshing, constructed of fresh spring greens, Serrano ham and Manchego cheese laced with a champagne pomegranate vinaigrette dressing. Fifteen dollars for one scallop? Well, it has to be seen. The jumbo diver scallop, perfectly cooked, and the airy puff pastry were attended by baby spinach, a silky Béarnaise sauce and a sprinkling of fresh lump crabmeat.
Entrees there are arranged to lure a seafood lover in many directions, making a dinner choice tougher than choosing a new car. (Yes, for those who must, there are a couple of beef and pork options.) Rockfish, crab, shrimp, salmon, scallops, black bass, bronzini, tuna, mahi-mahi and combinations thereof, and a daily selection of fish that the chef will prepare in half a dozen simple ways forced me to ask Beatrice for "just a couple minutes more" three times.
Mr. James employs rice, potatoes and pastas to subtle and surprising advantage as escorts for his fish dishes. Example: the mahi-mahi ($32) is grilled with fresh pineapple, kiwi and crab salad and comes to the table, delectably moist on a bed of sweet pea mashed potatoes laced with a light pepper crème sauce. His black sea bass ($34) gets similar attention. The fillet is sautéed in butter and white wine, tossed with capers, black olives and tomato and surrounded by orzo, the tiny Mediterranean pasta, made creamy with fontina cheese and more of that A-One crabmeat.
Grilled scallops ($39) are seafood royalty at O'Leary's. The meaty jumbo divers are tender and float in a pool of crab risotto with sautéed spinach. Majestic.
Almost too well fed at this point, our party ordered dessert, assuring me that it was part of my professional responsibility to report on the quality of the meal closers. The Berry Shortcake ($9), starring top quality berries capped with a glazed drop biscuit and whipped cream had my wife reaching for cell phone to take a picture … for the family album, I guess. The excellent Chocolate Mousse ($9) in an almond pastry cup with raspberry coulis was almost too much to finish, but we did our duty and departed O'Leary's into the muggy evening … happily.
There are restaurants around here that present you with a big bill for small pleasures. O'Leary's may stretch your budget, but its pleasures are many and large.
O'Leary's Seafood Restaurant
WHERE: 310 Third Street, Annapolis
HOURS: Mon. — Thurs.: 5—9 p.m., Fri. — Sat.: til 10 p.m.
CHEF:Ben James Sr.
1st COURSES: $12-18
MAIN COURSES: $27-37
CREDIT CARDS: All Major Credit Cards