Where It Matters Most, Nick's Fish House Comes Up Short
Nick's Fish House opened just a few weeks ago, and we've heard it's often packed. Word has been spreading quickly that the Chagouris family, behind those beloved Cross Street Market stalls known as Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood, opened a restaurant on the site of the old Dead Eye Saloon in South Baltimore. As it turns out, Nick's might be a good place to take weekend visitors for a taste of real Baltimore, as long as that taste has more to do with atmosphere than food.
If your guests want to eat outside, you might ask them if they mind having their senses numbed by earsplitting and horrendous jazz fusion and reggae. If so, suggest the upper deck, which accommodates both sit-down diners and drinkers, and which is a yoga studio compared with the Margaritaville scene below.
Either deck enjoys Impressionist-ready views of an adjacent marina, the mellow Middle Branch, and the Hanover Street Bridge. The refurbished structure anchoring these decks, the fish house proper, looks and feels spacious and accommodating. Propeller fans overhead convey a Key West ambiance inside, which is dominated by a mammoth bar. But there's tons of comfortable-looking seating in the blue-hued, vaguely nautical dining room, and a working, freestanding fireplace promises coziness in winter.
We were enjoying the general ambiance so much, really, were so proud of the family for having opened a place that would exploit their decades of expertise with fresh seafood, were so suddenly pleased with Baltimore for having, at last, a true representative of its idiosyncratic blue-collar harbor culture, and were so besotted with ourselves for simply being there that we could only wonder how the fare would compare to the Nick's we knew.
It turns out that the food's not great, and the menu is a downright disappointment, a baffling one at that. We were expecting an elaboration and, granted, a refinement of the humble cuisine--fried fish, raw bar, sushi--we've come to love at Nick's stalls in Cross Street Market. We were expecting, really, a choice of at least a half-dozen of the freshest fish in town, which the kitchen would broil or fry for us in simple, expert fashion. For now, the fish house's fish menu consists of stuffed flounder, a pan-roasted rockfish, and a daily special.
Beyond fish, seafood entrées seemed scant as well: crab cakes, a frutti di mare, a fish sandwich, an oyster po' boy. (We'll note that Nick's crab deck had not yet opened when we visited.) For now, seafood lovers will mostly satisfy themselves with appetizers and offerings--mussels, clams, and shrimp--from the steamer and raw bar. Such as they are.
A half-pound of steamed shrimp ($8.95) arrived in a bowlful of chunked potatoes and onions. Our shrimp were a little watery, a little flabby, oversteamed. An appetizer of pan-seared sea scallops ($7) were covered with a lackluster cornmeal coating that obliterated the mollusk's delicate flavor. I'm not sure I'd even call what was done to these scallops searing, a technique that should seal in the juices. The fennel-cucumber relish almost salvaged the affair but was counteracted by a badly handled fried green tomato.
We all loved the fried oysters, though ($7). They were plump and briny, coated in a crunchy, salty batter, and served with the restaurant's homemade remoulade sauce. They're recommended. We're also suggesting the superb, gently seasoned roasted corn and clam chowder ($4), but it's so velvety rich and creamy that we recommend sharing it.
Our seafood entrées were short of perfect. A beautiful pan-roasted rockfish ($15) yielded plenty of mild, flavorful meat, and the accompanying wilted spinach and wild-rice pilaf contributed balance of texture and taste, but we really had to try to make sense of ladled-on mesquite-tomato beurre blanc. The frutti di mare ($15) came closer: Clams, mussels, salmon, scallops, and lobster served with spinach, mushrooms, and linguine in a white clam sauce, it made for an eye-pleasing presentation. The sauce was too soupy, though, with ingredients allowed to swim. Avoid, for now, the oven-roasted chicken breast ($13), which was dry, coated with more of the same breading that had suffocated the scallops.
The meal ended on a good note, with high authenticity marks given to the Key lime pie ($4) by a former Key West resident in our group. Along with the four-star ambiance, the agreeable and committed service helped assuage our disappointment in Nick's seafood offerings. In the meantime, we'll eagerly await the crab deck and watch for the menu to evolve into something that befits that beautiful and humble name, fish house.