Who's Your Mama?
The Oysters Aren't the Only Turn-On at Mama's on the Half Shell
I seldom get tips about new restaurants. But a few months ago, neighbors started stopping me on the street to tell me about Mama's on the Half Shell, the new Canton seafood restaurant that the owners of Nacho Mama's opened next door to that Mexican mainstay. The place apparently looked smashing and was serving up satisfying food.
But before I could get there, Mama's had been reviewed in and reported on by practically every other print medium in Baltimore (both of them!). So, basically, what's left for me now is to fall lemminglike in line and agree that, yes, Mama's on the Half Shell is the smurf.
People were right--the place is federal. Diffused lighting, pressed ceiling, dark woods, and black-painted surfaces help give the first-floor space, which consists of a few tables up front and a long, long bar, the feeling of a place that's been popular for years. But not in a way, I think, that feels ersatz or kitschy--there's a solidity to the raw materials. And because it sits in on a corner location, the building is gifted with a Western wall of windows, imparting a feeling of expanse as well as valuable sill surface for standees at the crowded bar. Music plays at that perfect level where you take no notice of it. We came on a weeknight, and the place was crowded for a long time; no reservations are taken, but the bar is a fine place to wait, what with the windowsills.
We asked to eat downstairs, where good energy percolated all evening long, but checked out the upstairs dining room after our meal. We would have been more than content to eat up there, where it seemed cozier (crimson-colored fabrics, a fireplace), a bit more formal, and, of course, a lot less smoky.
The menu shows evidence of wanting to please but not impress. There's plenty to choose from (obviously it helps if you don't hate seafood and if you love oysters--vegans beware). It's especially refreshing to see so many fried preparations listed unapologetically. There's even a section on the menu titled "Connelly's Classics," an unofficial tribute to the memorably unpretentious seafood shack ("Connolly's," actually--Mama's misspelling is deliberate) that valiantly survived the first wave of Inner Harbor renovations.
Oysters, though, are the main thing here, and they come grilled, fried, on the half shell, on horseback (wrapped in bacon), and in shooters. All of our oysters we took as appetizers. A dozen raw oysters ($18, market price)--six Blue Point, six Malpeque--came with a chipotle-lime cocktail sauce and a mignonette, a red wine vinegar-based coating for oysters. Both sauces were good, but these mollusks needed nothing. Briny Malpeques particularly are best left alone. A plate of six grilled oysters comes with a choice of Parmesan-herb butter, whole-grain mustard horseradish, or smoked bacon barbecue sauce. Or, as we did, you can have two of each. The sauces sound and look at first as though they'll overwhelm the oyster flavor, but this turned out not so--the flavors expanded instead of contracting.
The best thing we had all night was the oyster stew ($6.95), made to order and shared by four (and not finished--it's that rich). Way creamy, flecked with peppercorns, and flavored with Worcestershire sauce, this and some crusty bread we thought would make a ideal winter meal.
From "Connelly's Classics" we chose a crab cake platter (single $14.95/double $22.95) and a pan-seared scallop platter ($13.95). The crab cake, which appeared to have possibly been broiled and then quickly pan-seared, should please most locals. It's certainly sizable, about the size of a hamburger, and appreciably lumpy, with little evidence of filler. Our table wasn't unanimously in favor of the seasonings--one palate found it "too herby," but the others were satisfied at least that someone had thought up a recipe that didn't over-rely on Old Bay. The scallops, which can also be ordered broiled or fried, were fine and simple, just what we wanted and expected. Both of these dishes came with sides--for us a heaping pile of perfectly decent but unremarkable shoestring fries, a coleslaw that tasted a hundred times better than its creamy looks suggested, and a cucumber tomato salad with unexpected bite and piquancy.
A platter of fish and chips ($10.95) coated up large pieces of fresh cod in a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer batter, with mixed results--fish great (moist, flaky), batter not great ( a little greasy and underseasoned, although some, we know, might find it ideal).
The seafood bouillabaisse ($17.95) here was unusual. Yes it was fresh and simmering, but there was almost too much seafood (salmon, clams, mussels, scallops) crammed into too shallow of a bowl (too much bouilla, not enough baise), and the seasoning seemed to underwhelm my bouillabaisse-loving companion. A gooey rich slice of Derby pie ($4.95) concluded a meal that was entirely satisfying and particularly well-served by a committed staff.
Show us yer mussels: firstname.lastname@example.org.