Bubba Gump perks up an Inner Harbor berth

There's a fun new neighbor at Harborplace. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. moved into the Light Street Pavilion in May, and the old mall, which had been looking down in the mouth, feels lively again — like a place people might actually have chosen to visit.

Founded in Monterey, Calif., in 1996, the chain of casual seafood restaurants was inspired by a shrimp-loving character in the movie "Forrest Gump." The Bubba Gump menu is packed with shrimp dishes, and the decor of a typical Bubba Gump restaurant is meant to suggest the waterside shrimp restaurant that the characters in the movie might have opened.

That makes Bubba Gump a good fit for waterside tourist destinations like Santa Monica Pier, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and Harborplace. The Bubba Gump atmosphere looks particularly inviting in its Light Street Pavilion anchor position. The space, which had been home until last summer to Phillips Seafood, an original Harborplace tenant, has been extensively remodeled. It is much sunnier and more cheerful now, and you can see diners respond to the colors and the pleasing harbor views.

The revival of this space is good news for Harborplace and the rest of the Inner Harbor, which has been populated by a few other thriving chains like Kona Grill and Brio Tuscan Grille. Bubba Gump employs a large, mostly young staff; they approach their jobs with so much charm and enthusiasm that you're willing to overlook their inexperience.

But if Bubba Gump is everyone's fun new neighbor, it's also the one guy who can't make you a decent martini.

The good times come with a cost. The food isn't very good. The few dishes that aren't bland — nearly flavorless — have an off taste that you can't quite define.

Along with a seasoning shortage, there's a near absence of richness, pleasant texture and satisfying flavor. Neither are there many moments when you feel that the best possible ingredients are being used. This was true especially of dishes with crab meat and — surprisingly — shrimp, which were almost always small, watery and lacking shrimp flavor.

That gets old pretty quick, and even when a sauce or condiment could come to the rescue, it doesn't. The fried shrimp on a po'boy had breading without even the taste of salt. They were served on an untoasted roll with thick pickle slices and pale tomatoes, dressed merely with mayonnaise.

On the other hand, the "Secret Recipe Cajun Sauce" in an appetizer of beer-steamed peel-and-eat shrimp had a tinny flavor that no one could place and that no one liked. And the butter and garlic sauce served with the Shrimp New Orleans entree had an odd initial flavor — of nutmeg, perhaps — that took a while to subside. Our waitress told us the dish gets better if you mix everything into the rice.

The shrimp scampi is much better. The shrimp themselves still aren't much, but the butter sauce is agreeably robust and garlicky, and the dish looks pretty, too.

The worst dishes were crab-based. The Maryland crab soup was the consistency of cake batter and had no crab flavor at all. Nor was there any crab flavor in an appetizer of crab-stuffed mushrooms, a new menu item at Bubba Gump.

Mostly, it's bland is as bland does.

Seafood hush puppies, inside and out, had no flavor at all. Served with a butter sauce, a pan-seared tilapia with potatoes and creamed spinach didn't offer good, rich taste.

The young staff has been encouraged to interact with customers. They ask Forrest Gump trivia questions, for instance, and remind you to visit the gift store. This is a lot more charming than it sounds, and families appreciate the diversion.

There were two unaccountable delays, with the cocktails and again with dessert, that made our eyes cross. The fruity cocktails — margaritas and hurricanes — packed a healthy wallop, but the bread pudding, strawberry shortcake and cookie sundae, served as a trio, all tasted the same.

Some of this, especially the underseasoning, comes with the chain territory. But not all of it.

A national consumer-advice magazine recently issued a ranking of 102 chain restaurants. The rankings were determined by a survey, in which restaurants were rated for taste, value, service and mood. The results might surprise you — some chain restaurants are better than others.

Bubba Gump has created a good mood down at Harboplace. This doesn't happen by accident, and the energy coming from pavilion, inside and out, is heartening. It works better as an attraction than as a restaurant, though.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

Where: 301 Light St., Inner Harbor

Contact: 410-244-0838,

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.99-$15.99; Entrees, $15.59-$21.39

Food: ✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭ 1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭ ; Poor: ✭]

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