Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Crabcake that Ate Baltimore

But it was an enormous crabcake! Seriously!

We took my Mother-in-Law out for her birthday yesterday (and despite celebrating on 6-6-06, she's a lovely person and the sweetest MIL anyone could ask for). She chose a new-ish restaurant called By the Docks, way out on Eastern Boulevard in Essex, past the waste water treatment plant, past Martin's airport, and almost to Bengie's drive-in. Pretty much the edge of the universe, and just about as far East as I am willing to travel. Mom told me that when she made our 6 p.m. reservation, she was informed that it would be held for fifteen minutes only and would be given away after that point; I laughed. Why would a hole-in-the-wall in Essex have a crowd at 6 o'clock on a Tuesday? But when we got there, the parking lot was packed. Luckily, we arrived a mere 10 minutes late and were ushered by a bored teenager to our window table in the cramped and noisy dining room.

My friend Jill, who had eaten at By the Docks on her birthday just two days prior, said the restaurant wasn't very relaxing. She didn't elaborate, so I assumed that the decor was spartan or ugly and the chairs were hard. It was rather drab - a large square room painted a pale blue, with little ornamentation but for a large sailfish and a couple of small prints. Not exactly cozy, but it was actually the noise factor that made the place un-relaxing. Customers, packed cheek-to-jowl at tables both in the main dining room and upstairs, chattered quite loudly, laughing and having a good time. It was irritating, but the most annoying sound was the clatter of ceramic dishes and flatware being tossed into plastic bins by the busy busboys. I cringed every time a table was cleared. The din was so bad, I had to strain to hear my brother-in-law speaking, and he was mere inches away. Across the table, the conversation between my husband and his mother sounded like faraway whispers.

But let's get to the food here, shall we? By the Docks is your typical Baltimore seafood restaurant: crabcakes, a broiled seafood platter, and stuffed shrimp, a couple of steaks, and some token pasta dishes. Entrees came with a salad and a choice of "vegetable." I put the word in quotes because I don't consider baked potatoes, french fries, or applesauce to be veggies. Cole slaw barely passes. And the veg du jour - corn, most likely canned and served in a bowl of it's own juices - is an insult. Would making some steamed broccoli or asparagus really hurt that much? Don't Baltimorons *like* green vegetables?

Anyway.... Jill recommended the crabcakes, saying they were very large and full of meat, but rather light on the seasonings. Three of us opted for that, and my BIL Craig decided on scallops.

The crabcakes were absolutely huge. A normal entrée had two golden-brown softball-sized mounds of meat, garnished with an unattractive pile of shredded carrot and two lemon wedges. My crabcakes were stuck together, and they had ragged square edges, as did those of Neal and Flo. I imagine that huge ice-cream scoops of crabcake mixture were placed side-by-side on a baking sheet and broiled en masse. Whatever the method, the cakes were obscenely large. And...they were good. There was very little filler and the meat actually seemed to be backfin. There was even a little crab mustard here and there. It was almost as if they picked the crabs themselves, the lumps were so large and intact. They were very mildly seasoned, but the restaurant thoughtfully provided shakers of Old Bay along with the usual salt and pepper on every table.

The cole slaw, which came in a separate bowl, diner-style, was minced so finely it was practically a puree. It was fairly dry and mostly flavorless.

Craig's scallops also arrived as a large portion, a bowl heaped high with half-dollar sized shellfish dusted with an afterthought of paprika, garnished with more shredded carrots. They were perfectly cooked, but a tad on the bland side. Our waitress, who had never eaten much seafood in her youth, wanted to know how we'd describe scallops to someone who had never eaten them before. She said the best she could come up with was "Old Bay-flavored Jell-O," a description I found extremely unappetizing.

I was able to eat one of my crabcakes and Flo could only finish half of her single. Neal did a more admirable job and got partway through cake #2. The rest was packed into foam take-out containers. And I will feast on my leftovers for lunch today.

So after reading about our orgy of crab, you probably want to know the bottom line. Well, the crabcake platter, with a salad and "vegetable" cost a whopping $21.95. The whole bill, for four dinners, two iced teas, a Scotch and water, and a glass of wine was just under $92. No wonder the place is crowded on a Tuesday - bountiful seafood at ridiculously reasonable prices.

Maybe next time we'll try the $18.95 24-ounce Porterhouse....

By the Docks
3321 Eastern Blvd
Middle River, MD 21220
(410) 686-1188

By the Docks Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon

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