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Food and Drinks

Get Us to the Greek

Harbor East newbie soars with seafood and service

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Eating at an expensive restaurant, for many of us, feels unfulfilling. The formal settings, the uncertainty on how to behave, and the unfair expectations that we put on the kitchen can take what should be a pleasurable treat and turn it into an unpleasant experience. This happens even before buyer’s guilt begins to creep in. The experience of dining at Ouzo Bay (1000 Lancaster St., [443] 708-5818) in Harbor East, however, puts all of those worries and fears to rest and gives you a look at what fine dining should be: great food with great service in a beautiful setting.

The seating in this Hapstak-Demetriou-designed restaurant is plentiful without being too crowded. For an upscale restaurant in Harbor East, the variety of patrons was surprising. Seeing businessmen, families with kids, and groups of young couples out on the town, all together in this very fashionable setting, was disarming. The dress code was as varied as the clientele. From suits to shorts and wingtips to flip flops, most people were casually dressed and comfortable. (The restaurant forbids “gentlemen” from wearing hats.)

Seated at clear-blue acrylic tables, we took in the impressive display of fresh seafood piled on ice in front of the kitchen. A giant angled mirror over top of the display affords the rest of the room a good view of the array of sea monsters that the kitchen cooks, like the jumbo prawn ($17). This aptly name crustacean was grilled over charcoal, dressed with ladolemono sauce—a combination of olive oil, lemon, mustard, and saffron—and served on a bed of greens. After it’s cracked open and its tender meat and innards removed, the juices of the prawn were mixed with the sauce to create a vinaigrette that turned the bed of greens into a fantastic salad. Also dressed well was the octopus ($15). Tossed in a red wine-caper vinaigrette and laid on a mound of hummus, this expertly grilled octopus was the best dish we ate all night. The slight char and crispy edges gave way to a soft and briny interior that, when combined with the contrasting vinaigrette, became a superb dish. A quartet of house spreads ($14) with grilled pita impressed. Htipiti (roasted red pepper, roasted jalapeño, and feta), skordalia (garlic dip), and taramosalata, a dip made from pureed fish roe, shared space with tzatziki (yogurt, dill, and cucumber). All of them were very good, though the taramosalata was the biggest hit of the four. A bunch of lamb meatballs ($9), topped with tomato sauce and creamy feta, was also a hit. The golf-ball-sized meatballs were packed tight and pleasantly gamey.

A couple of Ouzo Bay’s specialty cocktails ($12 each) paired well with our appetizers. The ouzo sour was simple yet effective, with gin and ouzo making up the body of the drink, egg whites giving it a little lift, and a luxardo cherry adding a touch of sweetness. The drink didn’t blow out our palate but enhanced the bold flavors of the food. The rodos buck was a concoction of mandarin-blossom vodka, ginger beer, hum liqueur, and kaffir lime syrup. This fragrant and balanced drink had a clean finish and was never overpowered by the ginger beer in the way a dark and stormy can be.

The main courses, while nothing overly fancy, solidified our impression of Ouzo Bay as a bona fide player on the Baltimore dining circuit. The true test of any Greek restaurant, the moussaka ($18), was rich and hearty, with a pillowy béchamel-sauce topping that lent creaminess and varied texture. The potatoes, ground beef, and eggplant were brought together by a spiced tomato sauce that carried through in the simple-yet-luxurious side of braised green beans. The lamb shank ($27) was cooked to the point of the meat falling off of the bone but turned out a bit dry. Maybe the meat wasn’t cooled in the braising liquid. Still, it was well seasoned. The bed of toasted orzo and vegetables on which it was served saved the dish—the combination was luscious and worthy of its own starring role on the menu. The sea scallops ($26) were spectacular. Placed upon roasted eggplant puree and sprinkled with cherry tomatoes, garlic, fava beans, and dressed with ladolemono, the silky scallops were out-of-this-world good.

From the dessert menu, the vanilla custard ($9) was wrapped in phyllo dough and soaked in honey. The mild custard didn’t compete with the sweetness of the honey and gave a smoothness that contrasted the phyllo. There was a decorative chocolate sauce paired with an orange reduction on the dish. We could have done without the chocolate and used more of the orange reduction.

Ouzo Bay is off to an incredible start and is proving that it can cook with the big boys in the neighborhood. If it continues to provide the quality that it’s putting out now, it will become a favorite of many in the city (us included).

Ouzo Bay is open seven days a week for dinner, service monday to Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and saturday 5-11 p.m., sunday 5-9 p.m.

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