Backfin Blues, a friend kept telling me, had the goods.
His former in-laws live in Port Deposit, an absurdly picturesque small town on the east bank of the Susquehanna River, a few miles north of Havre de Grace as the crow flies. That's how he came to know about Backfin Blues, which sits right on Port Deposit's Main Street, a lively looking commercial strip.
It was, on balance, worth the drive up from Baltimore. The covered back deck, where we were seated, looks out onto the Susquehanna and is a pleasant place to spend an evening. Those on the endlessly accommodating and friendly staff knock themselves out to welcome new customers. Chef Bob, as the jovial owner is known, conducts frequent strolls of his restaurant's colorful dining rooms and back deck, telling diners about the evening's specials and reminding them to make reservations if they have any hopes of getting a table on a Saturday night.
Backfin Blues is open for dinner only on Thursday through Saturday evenings — it serves a Sunday brunch as well — and I don't doubt it gets as busy as Chef Bob says. There's much about the place that's attractive, principally an ambitious menu that shows a kitchen challenging itself and its diners to try something different, something new.
But I wouldn't say that a trip to Backfin Blues is an urgent culinary matter.
There's nothing radically wrong about the eclectic menu, which swirls Continental classics like coquilles St. Jacques and fruits de mer together with shrimp wontons and tandoori salmon. A meander between high and low, and everything in between, can make for a pretty charming culinary excursion. At least, it can when it's executed with panache and everything reflects prettily on everything else. That happens about half the time at Backfin Blues.
One of the evening's specials, a roasted rainbow trout, was the evening's absolute high point. You wonder why chefs don't use this sweet, firm fish more often. Prepared with a fine lemon-caper sauce, it looked handsome on the plate and offered up marvelously nutty and sweet white meat. It was a winner.
Small things delighted us. We were singing the praises of that evening's star vegetable, the lowly zucchini, which the kitchen slices on the wide bias, seasons very modestly and grills lightly. It's the best use of the fulsome squash I've seen in a long time. Also, we loved the robust flavors in a blazing crab salsa, a special appetizer Chef Bob encouraged us to try. It was presented oddly, though, in the kind of large ramekin typically used for condiments. The price, $5.95, was strange — why not charge more and give more?
There is some additional menu weirdness. Crab Louis is a Backfin Blues signature appetizer, but it's not the classic chilled salad popular in Northern California. Instead, it's warm jumbo crab meat served with grilled asparagus in a garlic brandy sauce. It's prettily plated and the sauce is rich and tasty, but its pleasures are fleeting, and there are better things to do with good crab meat on a hot summer evening — like maybe a chilled crab salad.
The fruits de mer had potential, only to be undermined. The clams, oysters and shrimp were well-handled healthy specimens, and the tomato sauce was zesty. But the dish was weighed down with far too much pasta — overcooked, at that — and a sprinkling of crab meat on top of the dish looked out of place, gratuitous. Lamb shank served on pappardelle pasta with summer vegetables was satisfying in parts but not as a whole: The lamb was tender and tasty and the vegetables were pretty, but it never cohered satisfyingly.
A fried calamari appetizer, another house favorite, was enjoyed more for its roasted tomato sauce than the squid itself, which lacked the pleasing crispiness people want in fried calamari.
The Backfin Blues' version of coquilles St. Jacques — of which there are numberless versions — puts creamy scallops and mushrooms under puff pastry. It was impressively rich and fancy-looking, but a little sodden all the same. But the big question we had about this scallop dish was "Why?" Why a heavy dish like this at the end of summer, on this sweet back deck in Port Deposit with this friendly staff?
There are mixed messages throughout. The open kitchen and the bistro decor say one thing. The lackluster side salads, served with pre-fab tasting dressings, say another. The cocktail menu consists of too much juicy kid stuff. Desserts are mostly imported. The exceptions are rice pudding that's too milky and a chocolate lava cake that didn't produce enough lava.
Backfin Blues was a fun place to escape to. The staff treated us like long-lost friends. I think narrowing its focus would help. It seems a shame for Backfin not to exploit its pretty riverside setting and small-town charm more. Is there such a thing as Susquehanna cuisine?
Where: 19 S. Main St., Port Deposit
Contact: 410-378-2722, backfinblues.com
Hours: Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday and for Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$12; entrees, $18-$32
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]