New Fells Point Noshery Succeeds All Around
The latest incarnation of the Waterfront Hotel opened this summer, and while it’s still a work in progress—finishing touches were being put on an upstairs lounge when we visited—it’s easy to see it developing into a fundamentally useful Fells Point destination. It’s already established itself as something of a night-ending destination for myriad barhoppers and neighborhood bartenders lucky enough to close early.
Long a hotel and tavern, and semifamous as the detectives’ bar on TV’s Homicide: Life on the Streets, the spacious 18th-century building that houses this two-level operation has been stripped and gutted back to its brick walls and wood floors. Flattered with a working fireplace, the brooding, dark-walled upstairs dining room seats for dinner Thursday through Saturday nights and brunch on Sunday mornings. Otherwise, customers take their meals in the front bar downstairs, the ambiance of which, depending on who you are, comes across either as enlivening or just plain annoying. Buffeted variously by up-close live-music sets or TV-sports fans, you might find yourself contemplating a Clampett-style dinner at one of the two pool tables in the roomy and quiet area in back.
Opening-year ambiance tinkering, though, is probably the worst of the Waterfront’s problems, because the food here is excellent, several notches above pub-grub standard. The menu is modern and smart, designed to satisfy everyday desires with well-considered quesadillas, sandwiches, and salads, and supported by more ambitious big-ticket daily specials. The raw materials are impressive—the meats, seafood, and vegetables are happily absent of that depressing, fell-off-a-truck feel that characterizes so much tavern food. And the overall execution betrays a sure-handed, experienced, and cohesive kitchen crew.
A few specials excelled. A stellar appetizer placed barbecue bacon-wrapped shrimp atop thick slabs of melted-Jack cheese toast ($9.50). Some of the tangy, bacon-hugging barbecue sauce had been swirled prettily into a plate-filling beurre blanc sauce, creating an irresistible mopping ground for firm crustaceans and crusty bread. In another winning special appetizer, chunky medallions of grilled, fresh, and fatty tuna loin were plunked into a fragrant coconut curry sauce ($9), offering up full, rounded flavors.
The dreaded seafood pasta special, so often an exercise in soupiness and gratuitous garlic, got a good turn here with a cioppino-style plate of firm linguini that had been tossed with roasted bell peppers and healthy mussels, clams, shrimp, and crabmeat in a fiery tomato-pepper sauce ($18). Each bite was as interesting and fulfilling as the first. The steak of the day, a 12-ounce New York strip ($22.50), was glazed with a sterling honey-bourbon concoction that drew out but didn’t overwhelm the beef’s impressive natural flavors. This thick beauty, cooked exactly to specification, was accompanied by creamily good horseradish-infused mashed potatoes.
Of all the special plates, only a crab cake platter ($22) failed to ignite. Although modestly well seasoned and dressed smartly with a chipotle aioli, two good-sized cakes tended slightly toward mushiness, and, for the money, I’d almost rather have had one filler-free, lumpy showcase cake.
Regular-menu items suggest further good times for future diners. A fried oyster appetizer ($10), served with a spunky horseradish sauce, demonstrated respect for the briny bivalves, hand-dredging them in crispy panko breadcrumbs that fried up golden. A steak salad ($11.50) succeeded with simplicity—cooked-to-order slices of rare strip steak placed with Gorgonzola, grilled peppers, and cherry tomatoes in a mix of pretty field greens hand-dressed in a fresh vinaigrette.
From a selection of alluring quesadillas—carbonara, turkey brie, seafood—an inventive wild-mushroom quesadilla ($8.50) enclosed the autumn flavors of sherry-wilted greens, gorgonzola, capers, mozzarella, and portobellos in a crispy spinach tortilla. Mondays are half-price quesadilla day at the Waterfront, a smart time to go investigate its work.
The balance of the regular menu includes raw-bar offerings, enterprising salads, half-pound burgers and other sandwiches, and those banal “wraps.” Protein-based options for vegetarians are negligible, but there are a smattering of salads and quesadillas to choose from.
And think about splurging on a dish of panko-fried ice cream ($4), served in a cocktail glass over a slice of grilled pineapple. Our excellent server—in fact, the service here is uniformly winning, a major plus—suggested washing down this sinful pleasure with a chilled glass of espresso-flavored vodka. Good idea. I’m convinced all around.