For months, the tall windows and doors at 1728 Thames St. were plastered with thick brown paper. Construction trucks were out front, but curious passersby (including me) couldn't tell what was going on in the centuries-old Fells Point building.
Soon enough, there was a big sign announcing that a restaurant was opening. But construction dragged. It would still be many more weeks before diners got a glimpse of the inside of Thames Street Oyster House, the dream of owner Candace Beattie.
Immediately, the place, next to the rollicking Cat's Eye Pub, was packed. The glow of its debut was quickly doused when Hurricane Irene came roaring up the Atlantic seaboard, threatening to wash out the cobblestone streets and historic structures in the waterfront neighborhood. Once again, Beattie was covering up her exterior—this time with plywood.
Mercifully, the storm didn't cause the expected damage, and Thames Street Oyster House took down its protective sheathing to finally concentrate on establishing a niche in this restaurant-and-bar-saturated community.
It's no surprise that oysters—from raw to Rockefeller to shooters—anchor the menu. There's also a New England theme with lobster dishes, clams, and other seafood rounding out the list. A few meat options are thrown in, too, like a grilled skirt steak with beet relish and sweet plantains. The chef, Eric Houseknecht, has composed a casual menu with thoughtful, seasonal ingredients.
And in an area known for tourists, pub crawlers, and hungry diners, owner Beattie has wisely presented a price point to suit eaters who want to satisfy their munchies with a burger or a salad or those who are looking for a full meal with appetizers and entrees.
Despite its name, the Oyster House doesn't look like it hails from the Cape Cod area. With its hexagonal white-tile flooring, inviting wood bar, outdoor brick patio, and upstairs dining room with brown paper over the white tablecloths, the quaint row-house restaurant could easily have been plucked off the streets of Paris. The only thing missing is a French sneer from the wait staff. The servers here are young, friendly, and knowledgeable.
On one visit, our waiter Tony helped us choose from the dozen types of raw oysters available that day, explaining the pedigree of each. A paper guide with descriptions is given to diners, complete with pencils for marking your choices—similar to making selections at a sushi restaurant. But we really appreciated our server's guidance.
We ended up with six chilled, plump oysters on the half shell—do try the Kumamoto ones from California—that we slurped happily with a variety of condiments, including a traditional mignonette with shallots and black pepper.
The bivalves whetted our appetites for the official appetizers, including the ubiquitous lobster mac 'n' cheese. (Is there a menu in town without this dish?) It turned out to be more of a hearty meal than a warm-up to the main event. A small cast-iron skillet is packed with cavatappi "corkscrew" pasta glistening with a rich Gouda sauce and studded with sweet lobster chunks. It's a fine dish, just filling.
The oysters Rockefeller were fancy and delicious. The shells were properly set on a bed of rock salt, and their briny inhabitants were dressed with creamed spinach sporting Pernod and Parmesan. The knockout, though, was the shrimp ceviche—a bowl of plump shrimp "cooked" in a citrus marinade of lime, orange, ginger, and cilantro.
Now, it was time for the real test—tasting the crab cake. The 10-ounce patty was also served in a cast-iron skillet, filling up the pan like puffy pancake. It was moist and plump with lumps of crab. The Baltimore traditionalist in me could have done without the rémoulade sauce on top. The side dishes were great: sweet chunks of watermelon with threads of basil—a product of our late-summer visit—and horseradish potato salad.
The seared Block Island scallops were nicely burnished from a quick turn in the pan and meltingly soft inside. The farm-fresh succotash of corn, peas, and red peppers was a pleasing addition. The lobster and crab risotto with peas was laden with seafood but the rice was too chewy. The lovely, underlying flavors—lemon zest, basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano—helped support the dish.
Sitting in the upstairs dining room with a view of the harbor, we wanted to linger over dessert. They're made in house, which may or may not explain why they took so long to reach our table. During the interlude, we lost interest in the sweets. Their arrival didn't perk us up.
They were well-prepared but unexciting—dulce de leche brioche bread pudding in a splash of dulce de leche sauce and a orange-scented crème brûlée. For a cool finish, we liked the raspberry sorbet buried beneath a thicket of fresh blueberries.
Thames Street Oyster House is also open for lunch Wednesday-Sunday. We soon returned to sample the lobster roll. It didn't disappoint. Hunks of beautiful claw and tail meat spilled over the open-face crunchy roll. There's even drawn butter on the side for extra indulgence.
At the end of the meal, the check is served in an empty oyster can, a fun touch. With its menu, décor, and range of prices, Thames Street Oyster House has already managed to find a way to attract locals and visitors in a competitive area of town. We have a feeling that, barring an unforeseen hurricane, the restaurant won't be boarding up again anytime soon.
THAMES STREET OYSTER HOUSE
STYLE: A charming, bistro-like setting with an upstairs dining room and walk-in bar area.
CUISINE: A menu with a New England influence and a variety of seafood, including oysters, of course.
YOU'LL FIND: A private brick courtyard for dining with romantic lights strung overhead.
1728 Thames St., 443-449-7726. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun., Wed.; 5-10 p.m. Mon., Tues., raw bar and bar food until 11 p.m.; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., raw bar and bar food until 12 a.m. Appetizers: $9-12; entrees, $16-27; desserts, $7.