Good comfort-food favorites but inconsistent service.
Published: January 11, 2012
1417 Thames St.,  681-5310, waterfrontkitchen.com
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After a sluggish start, the latter half of 2011 brought out some potential heavy hitters in the city’s restaurant scene. Michael Mina’s much-anticipated Wit and Wisdom, one of three dining options in the new Four Seasons Hotel, opened late in the season, as did TEN TEN (“Almost a 10,” Free Range, Dec. 28, 2011), the Bagby Group’s second (of four) scheduled restaurants. And at the end of October, Waterfront Kitchen settled into the Living Classroom’s Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum in Fells Point.
If location were the ultimate bottom line in evaluating a restaurant, Waterfront Kitchen would win hands down. It’s a small, subtle room, well crafted by Patrick Sutton and dominated, of course, by its views of the harbor, where tugs chug across the water against a backdrop of violet-colored skies and the hot glow of the Domino sign in the distance. Floors are concrete, but the room doesn’t feel cold, saved by warm metallics such as the coppery table tops, the wooden beamed ceiling, and the arch nautical touches that are rustically sophisticated rather than sentimental (mirrors in the form of elongated portholes, a chandelier made from rope and what looks like glass jars).
Waterfront Kitchen also has a solid culinary pedigree in Chef de Cuisine Levi Briggs and consulting chef Jerry Pellegrino (both formerly of the recently closed Corks) and in General Manager Jamie Heffron, formerly a food and beverage manager at Caves Valley Golf Club. The menu boasts reliable comfort-food favorites (a monster pork chop, oyster stew, roast chicken, vegetable potpie, steaks), and the restaurant bills itself as “seed to table”—one step closer to the earth, one imagines, than farm to table. Waterfront Kitchen is also a partner with Living Classroom’s Baltimore Urban Gardening (BUGS) program.
But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?), after two months, the restaurant still feels unsettled and unresolved, as if decisions are being made on a nightly basis. The restaurant’s web site, for example, announces itself as “temporary,” but the disjuncture is most notable in the service, which is mostly well meaning but frequently left to deal with unclear restaurant policies, like why bread might or might not be served. Whether a restaurant offers bread isn’t make-or-break, but it becomes slightly weird when the server puts forth several conflicting explanations for bread on tables other than ours: You need to request it (nowhere is this made clear on the menu); it was part of the meal, but then nixed when the kitchen thought it would serve an amuse-bouche (neither were brought to the table); and finally, the kitchen hasn’t decided how to handle bread, but could bake some for us though our meal was nearly finished (we politely declined). Requesting a list of beer offerings and their prices was also an unnecessarily complicated endeavor. Since the bar keeps such a list, why not add prices and make it available to customers, so that staff doesn’t have to check or estimate charges? Having servers announce dishes being presented to the table and making sure each diner gets the correct order would also go a long way toward a polished, seamless dining experience.
That said, Waterfront Kitchen is turning out some pleasant food with a welcome creative flair. Pickling is a trend that has a bright future ahead, especially if it’s done as well as the potato and wax-bean garnishes on a beautiful house-cured, beet-stained salmon ($12) or the fennel that accompanies a farmer’s cheese flan ($11). Farmer’s cheese, often used as a filling for pierogis, gives the delicate flan that same airy, slightly tangy quality, and toasted pumpkin seeds add a contrasting crunch.
Prices of entrées range from $16 for a vegetable potpie to $42 for a 12-ounce filet mignon with two sides, and given that, the 16-ounce grilled porterhouse pork chop at $21 seems a real bargain. It’s also a well-prepared cut of meat, full-flavored and with just enough fat to keep it juicy. The accompanying red cabbage is a good complement, but a little starch on the plate wouldn’t be out of line.
Other entrées benefit from good basic ingredients coupled with thoughtful sauces. A lightly spiced tomato nage (broth) nicely tempers the sweetness of head-on Marvesta shrimp ($24) and mashed celeraic, though eating the dish gets to be a bit of a mess when the promised bowl for shells and ephemera fails to materialize. Likewise, the smoky depth in a black truffle jus elevates a crispy-skinned, very small fillet of rockfish ($26).
Grilled entrées are often synonymous with basic, and such is the case with an 8-ounce fillet of grilled swordfish ($28). It’s quality fish, served with a choice of two sides (in this case, dull creamed spinach and even duller fries), and there’s not a thing wrong with it, but it’s not particularly compelling. More interesting might be the addition of one of the sauces listed on the menu ($2), though the charge feels like nickel-and-diming.
Waterfront Kitchen offers a small, selective wine list heavy on, but not exclusively, New World offerings (the producer descriptions are a nice touch). Desserts, including a dry molasses cake with a better garnish of ice cream and sautéed apples ($9), are made in-house.
It’s clear that a considerable amount of planning (and no small amount of cash) has gone into creating Waterfront Kitchen. And the restaurant has good people behind it and a prime location to boost it. Given all that (not to mention the cost of dinner here), a great dining experience is in order. It isn’t happening now, but my hope is that the new year will bring a resolution to provide it.
Waterfront Kitchen is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday with brunch on Sunday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac