Beginning with the opening of the Greek-isles-inspired Ouzo Bay in 2012, Atlas Restaurant Group has gone all over the globe, with stops in Japan (Azumi), Italy (Tagliata, Italian Disco), Latin America (Maximón), and, soon, France (Monarque). But while the restaurant group has been around the world, it’s finally firmly rooted in Baltimore with The Choptank. Inside the newly renovated Broadway Market in Fells Point, Choptank bills itself as a “classic fish and crabhouse,” but it’s way more than that.
For starters, there’s a locally loved chef—Andrew Weinzirl of Maggie’s Farm fame—an adult playground with ping-pong, pool, and foosball tables, cornhole in place of the usual Keno, century-old photographs of Fells Point (no stuffed marlins or knotty pine here), and live music nightly. If there’s smoke outside on the patio, it’s likely from cigars, not cigarettes.
It’s a crabhouse, yes, but one with swagger. There’s also a menu full of finds and all the bells and whistles of a landmark in the making. When it comes to Maryland menus, it doesn’t get more Old Line than this: There’s crab soup, Monkton-sourced Roseda pit beef, Maryland crab dip, hard shells (sourced locally when available), Sweet Jesus oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, and Natty Boh’s Beer Can Chicken.
In many ways, this might be my favorite of Atlas’ 13 local spots, which can sometimes feel overly thematic. There’s a theme here for sure, but it’s the story of our state and one fitting for a restaurant set inside the historic south shed of Broadway Market, a place that once served the sailors and immigrants of Fells and is named for the Native American tribe that occupied the Choptank river basin in 1668.
Pretzel monkey bread
In addition to Atlas co-owners, and born-and-bred Maryland brothers, Alex and Eric Smith, there’s a third partner, Vasilios “Bill” Tserkis, who owns the nearby Captain James Landing crabhouse, which his family has owned and operated for more than five decades. Which is to say, the fabric of that heritage and history are woven into the walls here.
On my first visit, the place was packed in the still-warm fall weather. Of course, there was buzz surrounding the controversial dress code rules (no baggy clothing, no shorts below the knee, no sunglasses after dark) when the place opened in August, which seems to only have increased its popularity. (The dress code has since been amended.)
Throngs of patrons crowded outside, and since it was still in season, the requisite mallets and brown paper lined every picnic table. Inside is a more refined, yet casual space, where designer Patrick Sutton wisely retained the look and the feel of the original market, with its soaring wood-beamed ceilings. Blue and white table- ware and napkins and servers in denim shirts and boating shoes carry through the nautical theme, as does a giant crab rising like a phoenix over the raw-bar area. A Black-Eyed Susan, our state flower, graces every table.
Food-wise, we enjoyed almost everything we ate. The Maryland crab soup was a classic rendition with a tasty tomato broth and large chunks of crab meat; fried green tomatoes add a southern spin to the appetizer section, this version was topped with a blue crab and corn salad and Old Bay aioli. We also enjoyed the pull-apart pretzel monkey bread with Old Bay butter, a dippable cheese sauce, and mustard. An ahi tuna salad was nicely presented with thick slices of seared tuna coated in sesame seeds, served over greens with a tart-and-tangy ponzu dressing.
Our entrees included a luscious crab cake platter with broiled jumbo lump. While many places say that they serve Maryland or Gulf crab meat, there’s no question you’re getting quality crustaceans here. The cake was well-portioned and incredibly sweet, with that great crabby flavor that only comes from blue crab. (Little did I know that the following week, The Sun would publish a scathing review, leading the publication and the restaurant to get into a crab cake kerfuffle.)
I also enjoyed the accompanying sides. The fries and coleslaw, ordinarily throwaway accoutrements, were house-made. We also shared the beer-battered fish tacos. While tasty, they were overly fried, though I took note of the price point of this item, and many items, on the menu at a restaurant group that usually offers much more expensive plates.
Since no night out is complete without a sweet, we settled on the Berger cookie bread pudding: Berger cookies and a heap of Old Bay caramel ice cream from Maryland’s own Taharka Brothers mixed into chocolate brioche bread budding. It was the right side of sweet, and I appreciated the effort that went into creating house-made cookies.
By the time of my second visit, the crab controversy was the talk of the town, and I knew that I needed to return for another visit. Taste is, after all, subjective, but just in case my palate was having an off night, I brought along one of the preeminent experts on Chesapeake cuisine as my dining companion. This time, we ordered the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich (move over, Popeye’s) and a crab cake sandwich.
The verdict? While it seemed to have slightly less lump than the cakes on the platter, I loved the pairing of creamy (tartar-style remoulade) and crisp (fennel slaw) to offset the sweet meat. It’s a damn good cake, with made-in-Maryland pride evident in every bite. My mallet has fallen.
THE CHOPTANK 1641 Aliceanna St., 443-707-3364. HOURS: Sun.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. PRICES: Appetizers, soups, salads: $6-18; sandwiches: $12-29; entrees: $18-39; desserts: $6-8. AMBIANCE: Upscale crabhouse.