Raising the Bar
The Highs and Lows of Fells Point Pub Grub
Bar food, which in these pages is sometimes referred to by the infelicitous term "pub grub," gets a bad rap. We've all had our share of gristly wings and flabby mozzarella sticks, and the bar of expectations is generally set fairly low at the corner pub. What we're always on the lookout for are the exceptions, whether it's the secret-gourmet universe of Peter's Inn, with its weekly changing menus of seriously wrought cuisine, or, on the other end, the humble bargain fare at Remington's scrappy Dizzy Issie's.
What distinguishes the pubs we like from those we don't is this: Somebody cares. Because our state's byzantine liquor-license laws compel the sale of food in some drinking establishments, what we're always anxious about encountering is the perfunctorily handled food we've come to refer to as liquor-license cuisine. This is what we found at Montego Bay Grille (pictured), a new kid on the block in Fells Point, located in the digs formerly held by Chester's Steakhouse. With its live DJs, multiple levels, and, enforced dress code, Montego Bay has already established itself as a popular, multilevel nightclub. But we felt like suckers for eating there.
On a rainy weeknight, the staff seemed mildly surprised that we were there at all, and the kitchen turned out to be missing at least three dishes on its 10-entrée Caribbean-influenced menu. Some of the dishes we did try had laughable elements. The super-tiny shrimp tossed into a seafood diablo ($13.95) induced myriad memories of failed attempts at breeding Sea-Monkeys (finally, here was success), and the three cheeses that composed the touted Caribbean crab dip ($6.95): cream, sour, and yellow? Here also, an Omnivore first--a dish so off-tasting and unappetizing, the seafood diablo, that we asked to have its cost removed from our check, which it graciously was.
Although there were few items that, absent other evidence to the contrary, might have persuaded: namely, juicy and appreciably fiery jerk chicken skewers ($6.95) and a rib-sticking mountain of Cajun-style fettuccine Alfredo ($10.95). The curried chicken dish ($12.95) represented the prevailing spirit here of single-guy cuisine--a boneless breast (without detectable curry flavor), of goodly size, sitting on a great pile of salty white rice.
But there are a few more established Fells Point spots their take their food more seriously. The strategically located John Steven Ltd. has gained institutional status. The joint consists of a smoky front bar, notable for its unwelcoming regular crowd, a generically formal dining room, and an extremely popular cicada-proofed patio. The menu includes serious entrées like porterhouse steaks ($22.50), crab cakes ($21.95), and seafood scampi ($20), but the treasures here are the reliable and versatile raw and sushi bars, both of which remain open late daily.
On a recent visit, steamed mussels with chopped tomatoes in a creamy garlic sauce ($9.95) were plump, clean, and plentiful. A crab pizza ($12.95) arranged jumbo lump, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, basil pesto, and Monterey Jack on a well-seasoned crust. The pesto didn't overassert itself, and the crabmeat, among all of other ingredients, retained a lot of its natural flavor. A Caesar salad with grilled salmon ($14) was enjoyed for the handsome and large piece of freshly grilled fish and the crisp romaine lettuce, even as the Caesar dressing proved disappointingly tame.
The attitude is much more laid back a few blocks away at Friends. My friends love Friends, foremost for its pool table, free jukebox, and accommodating bartenders. The menu, which emphasizes appetizers and light fare as much as entrées, borrows more or less indiscriminately from world cuisines--nachos grande ($6.95), jerk chicken ($7.50), hummus platter ($8.50). We loved our steamed pot stickers ($8.95), five plump dumplings filled with ground pork and accompanied by a bracing soy-ginger sauce, all served in a handsome stacked rattan pot. The Argentinean steak salad ($14.95) unfortunately delivered manly slices of beef cooked way past requested rareness, but all was forgiven with, best of all, a meat lover's pizza ($9.95)--pepperoni, ground beef, and imported ham melded with mozzarella, provolone, and Parmesan cheese on a perfect thin and tasty crust. Friends, in its unassuming way, proved to be as close to the ideal hangout as Fells Point conjures up these days. Go for the drinks, stay for the food.