Though outside the leaves were changing, when we sat down for dinner at Marlin and Ray's Seafood and Sunsets, we had sand between our toes. Thanks to fun drinks, good seafood and laid-back service, getting a little sandy felt right.
The Bel Air eatery, which opened in early October, is the first Maryland outpost of a Tennessee-based chain. When we arrived, it was 7 p.m. and the restaurant was packed. The friendly hostess warned us the wait would be about 20 minutes (it was) so we headed back outside to explore Marlin and Ray's little patch of parking lot beach.
Though not huge, the restaurant's small section of sand, planted with Adirondack chairs and beach umbrellas, provided a welcome spot to sit while we waited. A sidewalk set of the beanbag toss game cornhole entertained us while we daydreamed about the boat drinks we'd order inside.
Those drinks lived up to the dreams — once we got our hands on them.
Shortly after we sat, our waiter stopped by to offer a few recommendations and take our drink order. However, the drinks themselves didn't arrive until nearly 10 minutes later, after we'd already received our appetizers and salads.
Fortunately, that was the evening's only service blip — and the drinks themselves were beachy and fun. The White Marlin's ($5) mixture of Blue Moon beer and orange liqueur was on the sweet side, but citrusy and easy to drink. The Caribbean Rum Runner ($6), with its coconut rum and chunks of fresh mango, tasted just like an island vacation.
When our waiter delivered the drinks, we were busy reorganizing our table to fit salads, which came in a large bowl to share, a cheesy shrimp dip appetizer ($6.99), and a small dish of complimentary jalapeno-studded corn muffins.
We dispatched the muffins quickly. Warm and moist, with a hint of jalapeno-driven heat, they were the tastiest thing on the table.
The salad, which came with our entrees, was a standard mix of greens and vegetables. Crisp and fresh, it worked as a prelude to the cheesy, rich shrimp dip.
Served with tortilla chips, the warm dip was a pool of melted cheese, thickened with chunks of shrimp. Overall, the dip was satisfying, though we wished the shrimp flavor had been more pronounced. Still, it was a good match for the sweet cocktails.
As the name suggests, Marlin and Ray's menu is seafood-heavy (a handful of chicken and steak entrees are available for landlubbers).
A trio of overstuffed fried shrimp tacos ($8.99) were difficult to eat without making a mess, but enjoyable. Topping a layer of crunchy cabbage and a sprinkle of cheese, the shrimp was crispy, sweet and, thanks to a drizzle of chili sauce, a touch spicy.
Skinny fries, served on the side, were salty and warm.
The Marlin's Sizzle ($15.99) showed off the kitchen's skill with fish. The entree included a skewer of grilled shrimp, a piece of blackened tilapia and a crab cake.
The shrimp were a tinge underseasoned but cooked nicely, with a little char. Fresh mango salsa highlighted their sweetness.
Thanks to spicy blackening seasoning, the tilapia was full of flavor. Flaky and tender, it was also cooked just right.
But the real challenge was the crab cake. How would Marlin and Ray's cake, with a recipe developed in Tennessee, measure up to our Maryland standards? We took our first bite with some trepidation.
We were pleasantly surprised. Though the cake was a little mushy, and we didn't detect any big lumps of backfin, it also wasn't stuffed with too much filler. The crab's flavor shined through.
The Sizzle came with a side; we chose onion rings. They weren't fancy, but they delivered a satisfying crunch.
Key lime pie ($4.99) was, unsurprisingly, the house dessert specialty. Marlin and Ray's sweet-tart version, topped with an airy pile of whipped cream and tiny tendrils of lime zest, was a good one.
But the blondie sundae ($4.99), a warm chocolate chip cookie-bar topped with a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce, was even better. The sundae wasn't island-centric, but it was tasty and comforting.
Considering the menu, the restaurant's decorators showed enormous restraint. They could easily have gone full "Margaritaville" on the interior. Instead, they opted for fishing-themed artwork in beachy, but muted, colors, checked tablecloths, and a few strands of festive cafe lights. The effect was tastefully Floridian, not over the top. Miami, without the vice.
But with fruity drinks and capably prepared seafood, Marlin and Ray's is a place that even Crockett and Tubbs would love.
Marlin and Ray's Seafood and Sunsets
Back story: The first Maryland outpost of a small national chain, Marlin and Ray's Seafood and Sunsets opened in Bel Air in early October. The restaurant's casual vibe and satisfying takes on island dishes make for a fun, beachy evening.
Parking: Lot on both sides of restaurant
Signature dish: "Marlin's Sizzle" is a trio of nicely cooked seafood — sweet grilled shrimp, flaky and spicy blackened tilapia, and a simple crab cake. Paired with crunchy onion rings and served with a side of bright mango salsa, the Sizzle is a satisfying seafood dinner.
Where: 593 Baltimore Pike, Bel Air
Contact: 410-638-0903; http://www.marlinandraysseafood.com
Open: Monday-Friday, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Rating: 2 stars
[Key: 5 stars: Superlative; 4 stars: Excellent; 3 stars: Very Good; 2 stars: Good; 1 star: Promising]