Latest Restaurant at Admiral Fell Inn Shows Promise
Fells Point is buzzing on a Thursday night. Music spills out of the Sound Garden, and getting around all the folks dining at tables outside on Thames Street requires the slim hips of a catwalk model or the agility of an Olympic gymnast. But turn the corner onto Broadway and go down the steps to the basement of the Admiral Fell Inn to Fin Steak and Seafood, and all is quiet. At 7 p.m., only one linen-dressed table is occupied (by the executive chef, Avi Cohen, his brother, and wife, it turns out); by 9, six tables will have been served.
"We're into the slow season," a server explains. But why should Fin be slow when everyone else is bustling? Is it because Fin's concept doesn't revolve around a pub or small plates or an essential ingredient? Is it because the dining room is below ground? Or because this dining room has had so many incarnations that it's hard to keep track of what's there now? Whatever the answer, it's a shame, because the food at Fin shows some imagination.
Take the tuna carpaccio ($6), one of several seafood appetizers, including littleneck clams, citrus shrimp and scallops, and a trio of crab cakes described as "Classic Maryland, Asian Style, and Southwestern," on Fin's compact menu. Granted, you can find seared tuna at numerous restaurants around town, but these slices are done just right, ballet slipper pink on the edges and grapefruit red and juicy in the middle. But what makes the dish more adventurous is the accompanying wasabi-ginger sorbet tucked into a hollow of cucumber. Scoop a little of the grainy pale-green sorbet onto the tuna and taste sweet, then spicy, then a slight burn, all bound up in cold. Overall, I'd prefer a little less sweetness in the sorbet, but the idea is a good one, and I'd rather see a slight misstep than no step at all.
The grilled calamari marinated in chimichurri ($7), an Argentine sauce made from garlic, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, and red pepper, tingles on the palate. Grilling the squid leaves the soft conical bodies slightly chewy, and the little legs, which curl up like tiny white chrysanthemums, lightly crispy. Yes to both.
For a restaurant whose primary name conjures the fruits of the sea, Fin offers more turf than surf. Four cuts of beef, a veal entrée, roast chicken, salads, and even a burger commingle on the menu with the likes of salmon and tuna fillets and more crab cakes. Except for some misplaced saltiness, cioppino, a San Francisco-style fish stew ($28), is savory and rich, filled with more calamari and plump scallops, nearly two inches in diameter, as well as shrimp, salmon, and clam in a tomato-based broth.
Even if you have a larger than normal appetite, chances are you won't be able to finish the double cut pork chops ($25).They are huge (and cooked to order.) They're also dredged in black pepper, not only around the edge but on one side of the chop, too, which proves to be a bit too much of a good thing. A little pepper gives nuance; too much just numbs the tongue and deadens the taste of the dishes' accompaniments--and those accompaniments are too good to miss. Sweet apple slaw balances the piquancy of the pork chop, as does the petite cube of potato gratin, a millefeuille of thinly sliced potatoes filled with cheese. Small but perfect.
Ingesting this amount of food usually precludes ordering dessert, but sometimes a sweet tooth calls. Be warned, however; the desserts are as generous as the entrées, and I'd advise diners to share (or perhaps the restaurant might make each smaller and price accordingly). Milk and cookies ($5) is a fun concept adopted by other area restaurants, but at Fin, a little more finesse is in order. The three huge cookies looked incongruous--like they should be sitting in a mall kiosk showcase rather than on a plate in a fine-dining restaurant, especially the peanut butter cookie whose surface was studded with peanuts (the chocolate and triple chocolate chunk cookies had their chips mixed in). They taste fine, but I would have enjoyed them better had they been smaller, crisper, and warmer. And while a shot of malted milk is clever, after dinner and a cocktail, milk is sort of unappealing. Adding a trace of a liqueur like Bailey's would solve that problem. The apple tart ($5) was similarly much too large for one (and oddly garnished with out of season strawberries), but its crust whispered butter.
Fin's wine list could be a bit broader--this may evolve over time, since the restaurant has a wine cellar set aside for tastings and small events. And service at Fin is proficient, though I really, really wish servers would refrain from referring to diners as "guys," as in, "I'm your server tonight, guys," or, "Anything else I can get for you, guys?" One, this clearly isn't T.G.I. Friday's. And two, I'm not a "guy." This is a widespread problem in restaurants, but Fin could be a leader if it ceased the practice. Please?
Despite a few quibbles, I liked Fin. I liked both the hewn stone and the navy blue walls, and the painted concrete floor, which lends a bit of modern elegance to the space. I liked looking up through the street-level window and seeing the feet of the folks walking by on Broadway. I just hope more of those feet will make their way downstairs.