The sweet, briny taste of Faidley's bulging crabcake was still fresh on my tongue as we hopped off the train at Penn Station and zoomed downtown to check out Choptank. Located in Baltimore's historic Lexington Market, Faidley's is famous for fabricating that city's best and biggest crabcakes. Choptank, located in the West Village, seeks to give those crabcakes a run for their money, on a menu that focuses primarily on the cuisine of Maryland. One rarely has the opportunity to make a direct comparison between an authentic product and its upstart imitator, so I'd spent a weekend in Baltimore re-familiarizing myself with the local chow before diving into Choptank.
Named after a river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay, the restaurant occupies a double storefront that was once Anita Lo's Bar Q, a place intended as a small-plate Asian-fusion gastropub—which may have been one concept too many. Without moving much around, the U-shaped space has been renovated so that it seems much larger. The sight lines have been opened up, and nautical prints hung on walls painted deep green and yellowing ivory. "This looks like an old men's club," my date murmured as we studied the menu, sitting on high stools at a raised table that our waitress had to stand on tiptoe to reach. And then we set about ordering things we'd just eaten in Baltimore.
First a complimentary basket filled with homemade potato chips hit the table, served with an agreeably gloppy crab dip. The chips were dark brown and liberally sprinkled with Old Bay Seasoning, the spice mixture that tastes mainly of celery seed, mustard, and salt. It was invented in Baltimore by German-Jewish immigrant Gustav Brunn in 1940 to make steamed crabs taste saltier, so that local bars could sell more beer. Choptank's chips are habit-forming, and I wish I had a handful right now.
Next arrived a bowl of crab chowder ($12), another Baltimore standard. The version I'd tasted the night before at Mama's on the Half Shell—an ancient pub located across the Patapsco River from the Port of Baltimore, featured in the hit show The Wire—was a chunky and ferociously spicy tomato broth with a handful of crabmeat flung into the center. Choptank's rendition turned out to be cream-based, bacon-heavy, and configured along the lines of New England clam chowder. It was good nonetheless. And so was a hank of Ostrowski's Polish sausage, which is more fine-grained than Greenpoint examples. Made in Baltimore's Fell's Point neighborhood, this kielbasy is considered the best in Baltimore. At Choptank, the sausage is served with grainy mustard and a heap of warm, mild sauerkraut.
Other apps include a raw oyster service featuring two or three choices, one of which is usually pulled from the Chesapeake Bay, and a delightful pail of steamed littleneck clams ($15) with a couple of garlicky toasts placed on top. You can also have Jonah crab claws and a Virginia ham plate, offered with a pair of tiny baking-powder biscuits. The only starters we disliked were a rock-shrimp taco, which seemed like it had been carelessly invented as something to keep the rock shrimp busy, and an ill-conceived octopus-and-potato salad that included too little of the cephalopod to justify the $12 tab.
We sat forward in our seats expectantly as the mains began to arrive. There was a splendid plate of fried chicken ($20), another specialty of the Lexington Market, which came sided with collard greens and black-pepper honey. The arctic char was cooked nicely rare in the middle, but the overabundance of lardons in the underlying lentils made everything on the plate taste too much like bacon. We liked the oyster po boy ($15), though the accompanying "tobacco onions"—so named because they looked, rather than tasted, like shredded tobacco—were one fried thing too many to be hit with.
But then the crabcake ($24) hove into view, and we nearly burst into laughter; not because the crabcake was too small (indeed, it was 80 percent the size of Faidley's, which is still gigantic), but because of the seemingly random objects set around it on the plate. The thought that a line cook had so carefully arranged a teetering pile of four saltines, a single pickled yellow pepper, and a wedge of iceberg lettuce struck us as comical. Nevertheless, the generosity of the crabcake and its clean, fresh flavor were remarkable.
If only it were saltier, I thought, as I picked the thing apart and savored the sweet, chewy flakes of crabmeat. Then I'd have the perfect excuse to order another beer.
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