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Free Range

Casual Acquaintance

The Point in Fells' food overcomes the restaurant's contradictions

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

The Point in Fells

1738 Thames St., [410] 327-7264,

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The past two years have seen some whiplash-quick changes at 1738 Thames St. In December 2008, the address became home to Miss Irene's, a gussied-up version of the former dive bar of the same name, but a year later the space had a new name and concept (though reportedly the same owners) in Poe Boys Oyster House. (Poe Boys, too, quickly became a bit of Baltimore now-you-see-it-now-you-don't.)

Opinions about why Miss Irene's failed were bandied tirelessly about the blogosphere: The new Miss Irene's wasn't the old Miss Irene's; it was too expensive, too pretentious; the food wasn't good enough (though it was quite good when City Paper visited in spring 2009); fine dining doesn't work in Fells Point. This last premise is fairly ridiculous given the longtime success of Kali's Court and the Black Olive, but it does speak to what many folks have come to expect from a Fells Point bar/restaurant: inexpensive casual dining and lots of drink.

Today the Miss Irene's space is occupied by The Point in Fells, a new venture owned by Erica Russo and her parents, Eva and Jimmy Chin, who also own Edie's Deli and Grill on Pratt Street. On first impression, little has changed. The bar and casual fare remain on the first floor, the beer selection continues to be respectable, and you can still find white tablecloth dining on the second level.

But spend a little time at The Point, and you'll find that the atmosphere is decidedly different from its predecessor's. The bar noise hits higher decibels, and the disconnect between it and the restaurant feels more pronounced. Service is less polished and more informal, to a fault. (A hostess parked at a stand outside the building seemed bewildered by the concept of a reservation, and even more confused about where to have our party wait while she investigated; bus staff navigated tables awkwardly.) The dining room looks as elegant as it ever did, but the whole enterprise feels a bit rudderless, as if it was an afterthought to the busy bar below.

Perhaps this incongruity exists because The Point emphasizes the casual. "Casual yet upscale" is how the restaurant describes itself on its web site, and further promises "a white tablecloth experience but with a casual atmosphere." OK, but what does that mean exactly? Don't "casual" and "upscale"/"white tablecloth" denote different ends of the dining spectrum? Call me picky, but this matters, especially because The Point is turning out some pretty good food, and I wonder if it has the right audience for it.

The Point's web site explains that the restaurant "specialize[s] in making food different [by] taking a standard dish and giving it a twist." Chef Jacob Raitt II, who has been in the kitchen at Salt, among other spots, is doing just that. Bok choy and an aioli dusted with Old Bay accent a jumbo lump crab cocktail; a scallop ceviche small plate includes the unlikely addition of olive oil popcorn. Raitt has also introduced some unlikely dishes to the menu, such as the forest mushroom salad ($10) accented with water chestnuts, udon noodles, and a ponzu vinaigrette. It's a fine fall offering, woodsy yet clean, rich but not overpowering. It's also large enough to share comfortably, as is the artisanal cheese and charcuterie plate ($10). The assemblage here, however, better shows off the kitchen's talent for pulling things together (Serrano ham, candied walnuts, and bleu cheese) rather than its prowess in creating charcuterie. The pork-based galette studded with blueberries just isn't as flavorful as it might be.

Raitt continues his tweaking with an entr?e menu full of comfort food prettied up with nontraditional sides and garnishes. I'm not a huge fan of monkfish, but the perfectly pan-seared monkfish ($20) done in the style of carbonara won me over instantly with its delicate sauce of onion, peas, and pancetta, all melted together into a light sweetness. A whole dorado ($20, listed on the menu as "durode" and also known as "dorade") also comes pan-seared and smothered in root vegetables. Diners reluctant to tackle a whole fish take note: This one is eminently manageable, portion-sized, and easily removed from the bone. It's also pretty darn delicious, the fish creamy and not at all dry.

The Point offers several hearty one-pot dishes such as seafood bouillabaisse, chicken thigh stew, and a "pot roast" ($22), which is really short ribs braised in Guinness with cippolini onions glossy brown and caramelized. There is also a risotto, a clams casino-turned-pasta dish, and several types of chops, including lamb ($24), which arrived far too rare and were accompanied by spaetzel pale green and slightly medicinal from the addition of mint, the only real culinary misstep of the evening.

The kitchen continues putting a decent foot forward with desserts. A pumpkin cake with toffee sauce and candied pumpkin seeds ($8) could have used more spice, but it had an appealing texture, like a lighter version of bread pudding; an impenetrably dense chocolate cake with macerated cherries ($8) felt more ordinary. The winelist is pretty ordinary too and not an able match for the quality of food being served, but whether this becomes an issue remains to be seen. Ultimately, an evening at The Point should yield a decent dinner at a fair price. In fact, it's doing exactly what it claims to do: offering interesting food in a casual atmosphere.

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