An Inner Harbor steakhouse offers few surprises
It's hard to get away from national chain restaurants at the Inner Harbor, and the opening of Sullivan's Steakhouse just makes it a little harder. You don't have to be a self-professed foodie to find this trend and its implications troubling, from the literal loss of regional flavor (do we really need a 1940s Chicago-style steakhouse in downtown Baltimore?) to the creation of a dining monoculture across the country's urban and suburban landscapes.
Obviously, this phenomenon isn't limited to Baltimore (Times Square has a TGI Friday's for Pete's sake), and it's become inevitable that from time to time, most of us, including the most diligent locavores, find ourselves eating "locally" at a restaurant whose other locations are in neighboring states, rather than in nearby neighborhoods. After a mostly respectable lunch at Sullivan's, I'm pretty certain a meal there won't change your mind about chain restaurants (if you hate them you won't like it; if you love them you will), but the restaurant offers a competent rendition of what it does at reasonable prices.
Lunch at Sullivan's looks a lot like dinner, except the portions are smaller and the prices are lower, a boon for those of us counting our dollars (and who isn't?). In classic steakhouse form, salads, chopped, tossed, and wedged, proliferate, and burgers and steaks rub elbows with a pesto chicken sandwich and broiled salmon fillet. The dinner menu offers a few more appetizers, including oysters Rockefeller and steak tartare, as well as a Summer of $69 three-course, prix fixe special (does Bryan Adams know about this?). Lunch counters with a business lunch, which, at $18 for two courses, is somewhat of a deal whether you're dining with your laptop in Sullivan's bar or with your colleagues in one of the small, wired, and Power Point-ready private dining rooms that line the Light Street side of the main dining room. Choices for the business lunch include Caesar or iceberg wedge salad, or French onion soup or asparagus bisque for starters, and six-ounce filet mignon, roasted chicken breast, or an eight ounce broiled salmon fillet as entrée; as should be obvious, these are not "lite" lunches.
Still, it's hard to avoid the feeling of fine dining manqué with Sullivan's, from the dully dressed Caesar salad ($6 or as part of the $18 business lunch) to the faux library theme of one of the three dining rooms to the lack of information on the menu regarding the quality grades of beef served (this is a steakhouse after all) to the table service which was absolutely well-meaning, if a bit unpolished. Our server's mild boast that "the servers make the salads ourselves" devolved into a sweetly sheepish "I put a wedge of lettuce on the plate and sprinkle it with blue cheese and chopped tomatoes" when pressed, and though one server made the rounds of empty tables during lunch service, conscientiously dipping water glasses into a container of hot water, then wiping them dry to clean off fingerprints, an extra place setting sat neglected on our table throughout the meal.
The food is similarly unpredictable. Who would have thought that an iceberg lettuce wedge ($5 or as part of the $18 business lunch) would be anything beyond dull? But the salty creamy blue cheese dressing dotted with additional blue cheese and sweet ripe tomato dice reminded this reviewer why some preparations, however humble, are classic. The Caesar salad, though generously portioned, couldn't compete for flavor (and if the dressing is made properly, with anchovies, garlic, and quality Parmesan, it should). Lobster bisque ($8), ordered a la carte, arrived a hair short of steaming. Still, it boasted clear flavors, nuggets of lobster, a creamy texture unmarred by too much flour, and a dash of spicy heat.
Meat should be a steakhouse's strength, and if the six-ounce filet ordered as part of the business lunch is any indication, then this is true of Sullivan's. Though petit, the meat was tasty, and seared so that the outer crust was sweetly caramelized and richly pink within. The roasted chicken breast (part of the $18 business lunch) showed the same balance of crispy outside with moist inner meat, though the Madeira mushroom sauce tasted more of cream than Madeira. We couldn't see the open kitchen from our dining booth near the restaurant's towering wall of wine, but these dishes reassured that someone in the kitchen was keeping a careful watch on the oven, and I'd recommend both as respectable entrées.
Stay away from the crab-stuffed shrimp (a special priced at $20), however, even if an enthusiastic server recommends them as awesome. They're not. If as a Baltimorean, you're used to lump crab, minimal filler, and a light touch with the Old Bay, you will be disappointed by this dish. And coupled with the mound of mashed potatoes and the toss of sautéed and slightly oily squash and peppers that accompanied all three entrées, the crab dish came off as corporate, wedding-reception style food.
Many desserts at Sullivan's come in portions for two, like the crème brûlée or warm chocolate brownie cake, and the addition of a baked soufflé in chocolate, Gran Marnier, or lemon makes an elegant addition to the requisite New York-style cheesecake or Key Lime Pie.
Sullivan's is certainly making an attempt to please, from the small strip of parking spaces outside the restaurant (yes, you really can park on Light Street) to private dining rooms and business accoutrements to the much talked about black hosiery of the short skirted female servers (yes, many do wear fishnets). If you end up there for a meal, you could do much worse. But you could also do better.