What is it we want from Phillips?
Like it or not, the restaurant is the city's unofficial headquarters for Chesapeake seafood. For the last three decades, more visitors to Baltimore likely received their first crab cake from Phillips in Harborplace than anywhere else in Baltimore. I think we want to know that Phillips is representing us well.
If, like many, you've found yourself uneasy about how Phillips was performing in this ambassadorial role, I've got some encouraging news for you.
Phillips' move across the harbor last fall from the Light Street Pavilion to a new home at the Power Plant has done it a world of good. The food is mostly shipshape, the service could not be friendlier and the new space is expansive, welcoming and, for a high-volume, family-friendly restaurant, downright attractive.
Just inside, there's a large and curvy piano lounge with plenty of ottoman-style seating for waiting diners. In the near corner is a small seated bar, and toward the back is the entrance to a separate bar area. The design here, and in the main dining room, strikes just the right balance between contemporary and comfortable.
Coming across as neither slick nor cheap is a tricky thing to pull off, and Phillips manages it with a liberal use of brick, neutral tones and wood, and a restrained deployment of old-timey effects like stained glass and ship models. We'll have to check back in 30 years to see if the new Phillips ends up feeling as tired and obsolete as the one in Harborplace, but for now, it's looking pretty spiffy, if overly bright.
The lively main dining room, dominated by the large open kitchen and designed with maximum booth seating in mind, is tended by an alert and friendly staff. When we visited, Joanna Phillips, a fourth-generation member of the founding family, was stopping by each table for a short visit. If we had been visitors or conventioneers, we'd be telling everyone back home what a friendly city Baltimore is.
About the dinner itself, we'd have come back with a mixed report. There are some things, like a flounder stuffed with crab imperial, a simple crab saute and a mixed seafood platter, that Phillips pulls of very well. There are distracting misfires, though, like an appetizer of mushy mini crab cakes, a sangria that tastes like it was poured from a can, an under-seasoned shrimp scampi and a ceviche appetizer that seemed tailored for people who are afraid of ceviche.
If there's an overarching disappointment, it's that visitors may not leave with a great story to tell about Maryland seafood. Phillips extends its reach far beyond the Chesapeake, with menu items like whole Maine lobster and a $79 clambake for two. The Simple Fish section of the menu, from which diners choose a cooking preparation and sauce, disappointingly lists mahi mahi from Ecuador and tuna from Hawaii but not rockfish from Maryland. None of the oyster selections when we visited were from nearby waters.
On the other hand, Phillips was using Maryland crab meat in its crab dishes. That was a lovely thing to hear our server tell us. And I really hope they keep up.
The best dishes were simple and classic. The crab saute, even at $25, is for my money a better introduction to sweet Maryland crab meat than a crab cake. Phillips sautes the crab meat gently with plenty of good butter and light seasoning, and serves it in a cast-iron skillet.
You can order a seafood platter, consisting of a crab cake, shrimp and a fish fillet, either broiled or fried. Anyone can broil, but clean and consistent frying is a sign of a well-tempered kitchen, which does a commendable job with careful battering, moderate seasoning and greaseless frying. The shrimp are butterflied attractively and the fish tastes wholesome and fresh underneath the breading. The crab cake, not having to star on its own entree, is perfectly satisfying. Was I swayed by the fact that it was made with Maryland crab meat? You bet I was.
These are dishes that succeed best with minimal seasoning and interference. But when a chef's touch is needed, Phillips can go sideways. For instance, a strong dose of garlic, and even salt, would have saved an otherwise worthwhile scampi dish from rampant blandness. When ceviche is prepared by marinating in citrus juices, it can offer astringent pleasure. But here, lightly seared and tarted up with sweet fruit juices, it loses appeal.
Overall, at Phillips, it feels like you're having a nice dinner in a good restaurant. The food is uniformly plated with care, sided with attractively herbed vegetables and garnished prettily. As sweet as the service was, there was consistent grumbling at our table that the food wasn't coming out hot enough. I can't quite figure out how that could be with such an obviously hustling staff. By the way, keep your eyes on your food runners, who manipulate fully loaded trays like Cirque du Soleil performers.
If Phillips doesn't show visitors more of the Chesapeake than the crab dishes, that's not so different from almost every other seafood restaurant in town. But there's a big Baltimore grace note in the dessert course, a tremendously delicious pie made from Berger cookies. It's so good that you'll hardly notice the other desserts you ordered, decent examples of the things that every restaurant has — Key lime pie, chocolate lava cake and particularly buttery bread pudding.
I left feeling kind of proud of Phillips, and of Baltimore, too. We're in good hands.
Contact: 410-685-6600, phillipsseafood.com
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$15; entrees, $18-$29
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ ; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭