Pierpoint Serves Up Great Main Courses, But Surrounding Dishes Need Work
You're a big movie star who's just been cast in a new Nora Ephron movie about a feisty chef who runs her own restaurant in a major East Coast city. (You used to be Meg Ryan, now you're Reese Witherspoon.) Naturally, you'll want to research your role, gather some insight into the life of a plucky big-city chef. I suggest Pierpoint
That's where chef Nancy Longo has been running her show since 1989. (You remember 1989--Tiananmen Square, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?) That's a long run in the fickle restaurant business, and Longo has earned every pleat in her toque for being way out front as a supporter of Maryland cuisine and, of course, as a successful woman in a field long dominated by men.
With its bright urbanity, Pierpoint looks every bit the part of Hollywood's idea of the visionary vanity restaurant, a reflection of the goals of the woman in charge. Pierpoint is small, but the narrow room is lightened by side walls painted yellow and purple, white tile floors, and long rows of aquamarine banquettes. And, there in the back, is the open kitchen (a cliché now, but not in 1989), where Longo puts it all together (alone, apparently, on weeknights). Longo's ceaseless devotion to Pierpoint, when so many of her peers have divided their attention with side projects and sequel restaurants, is damned impressive.
Pierpoint is arguably not the front-of-mind restaurant it once was (though it was City Paper's Best Restaurant in 1999). An extremely unscientific poll determined that very few Baltimoreans know about Pierpoint, and those who do haven't been there for years. But someone must be going to Pierpoint, because the restaurant betrays no evidence of institutional melancholy--the flowers are fresh, the room immaculate. (This, though: In the old days, did the waitstaff have to tend bar for themselves?)
What put Pierpoint in the front of my mind was the memory of Longo's smoked crab cakes. I can't remember when this was, or who I was with, but I do remember the feeling of eating something wonderful. Recently, when the Canton restaurant we were headed for turned up closed, we turned around and headed back to Fells Point.
First, about those crab cakes: They're still rave-worthy and, all things being equal--including price--they're probably my favorite in town. Pierpoint offers them traditional and smoked, but I like the smoked version. Two big cakes arrive, full of both lump meat and--this may be the secret to their success--sweet claw meat. Like the best crab cakes, they are held together by alchemy, by the will of the chef, but not by breading. They're pan-sautéed to a glistening gold and served with a pile of matchstick fries and Brussels sprouts, and it's a just about perfect entrée. It's also a $27 dish, and if people resist Pierpoint, I think it's because the prices here are kind of lofty.
If everything were perfect at Pierpoint--and the place sets expectations high--the prices wouldn't matter so much. But we didn't love everything we had here, and a few things we didn't love a lot. We did enjoy our entrées: beside the crab cakes, there was a cioppino ($23), filled with rockfish, clams, shrimp, and scallops, and served with focaccia toasts. The stock was a toothsome blend of tomato and seafood flavors, not too strong, just right. And an excellent special of Cajun-spiced and corn-breaded grouper ($24) featured a robust crawfish gumbo sauce and creamy cheese grits. We were tempted by almost every other entrée, both regular and special, which these days often have an Asian influence, like a bento box for two or somen noodles with seafood in a curry broth.
It was what we tried before and after the entrées that left us cold: a lobster bisque special with crispy leeks (cup $5.50/bowl $7) that was too thick and short on leeks; egg rolls with barbecued duck ($8.50) that were assertively crunchy but lacking in duck flavor, or even much duck; a so-so salad ($7.95) with strips of drab corn-fried chicken breast, absent the billed sweet potatoes.
On the other end, a Granny Smith apple cobbler ($6) had a delectable shortbread crust but should have been served piping hot, and the crème brúlée trio ($6.50) of chocolate, mandarin orange, and ginger chai, was just not good--soupy mush.
As close a call here as you can imagine. Pierpoint merits respect and attention, and the specials especially seem inventive and tantalizing (and those crab cakes!), but the prices will test the diner's patience for anything less than the very best. But I believe, on any given night, Longo and Co. can still pull it off.
Smoke 'em if you've got 'em: firstname.lastname@example.org.