The best thing about O'Leary's Seafood Restaurant is how tricky it is to describe.
Not so many years back, I'd have called O'Leary's eclectic, which became a byword for both a type of menu and the kind of place that served it. Offering a relaxed version of fine dining, the eclectic restaurant flourished in the 1990s, when serving staffs started wearing black T-shirts and sheets of paper were placed over the tablecloth.
Eclectic lives on at O'Leary's, which is housed in a bright blue cottage-like building, a stone's throw from Spa Creek in Annapolis. Inside, a peaceful atmosphere prevails. Diners enjoy themselves quietly, with smiles on their faces. There's something about the mustard-colored walls and extra-vivid artwork that made us think of the 1990s, too. Those were good times.
At O'Leary's, there aren't small plates and no messages on the menu about its fishes' point of origin. Really, there's no agenda or mission, other than following creative impulses and serving good food to appreciative patrons.
Appetizers range from American bistro classics like tuna sashimi and beet salad to European cafe fare like gambas al ajillo and escargots stuffed into mushroom caps.
The entrees are, well, eclectic. A whole rockfish is given a classic Provencal preparation, marinated with garlic, herbs and olive oil. The lemon sole gets the upscale cafe treatment, stuffed with crab meat, Boursin, apples and herbs. Asian influences and flavors pop up in the Thai-barbecued mahi mahi and the Thai swordfish steak.
Like many of its Annapolis neighbors, O'Leary's is curiously disconnected from its Chesapeake surroundings, with much of its fish and seafood coming from Pacific and Gulf of Mexico waters. Elsewhere, this has annoyed me, but it didn't at O'Leary's, where the focus is less on where things come from than what's done with them. O'Leary's is very comfortable in its own skin, doing what it does.
This approach can come across as complacent, though. And when O'Leary's goes astray, it's when an idea feels tired. The lobster cappuccino appetizer was a lobster bisque served in a glass, with a spoonful of lobster meat on the side. You were meant to take the lobster and ... well, who knows? It was silly, and the bisque itself lacked lobster flavor.
The less artifice it uses, the better O'Leary's does. And most things here are straightforward, like the confidently arranged and refreshing tuna sashimi appetizer and the crispy Virginia oysters, an artfully arranged plate of lightly battered and gently fried oysters and leeks, served with a tangy mustard-lime remoulade.
Someone cares about flavor at O'Leary's. There was some real chile heat in the gambas al ajillo, a generous helping of shrimp sauteed with garlic, and a little too much smoked paprika.
We wondered, though, how fresh the shrimp was, both here and in the zarzuela, O'Leary's take on a classic Catalan shellfish dish. And that's a shame, because the zarzuela otherwise was a winner, a surprisingly spicy, white wine-flavored broth brimming with good mussels, pillowy scallops, littleneck clams and lobster meat.
The favorite entree was the Thai swordfish steak, a mellow delight bathed in a buttery yellow curry sauce and served with shrimp, grilled pineapple and a chiffonade of spinach and jasmine rice. Swordfish steak can be a tough and bland nuisance, but not here.
The lemon sole, though, was an overproduction. Instead of letting the mild fish speak for itself, it was stuffed with things — Boursin cheese, jumbo lump crab meat — that accumulated into an overall blandness. And O'Leary's overdid it with its lone beef entree, the filet mignon Marsala, where the sauce's assertiveness seemed designed to conceal a lack of quality in the meat itself.
Dessert is a mix of the brought-in and the homemade. The thing to get is the mixed-berry shortcake, which is built around a genuine piece of homemade shortcake. The chocolate mousse, though, was the dessert equivalent of that silly lobster cappuccino, a contrivance when you wanted substance. It was served in what looked like the same type of glass.
When we went with our waiter's recommendations, we always came out ahead. This was especially true of our wine decision, which the waiter patiently walked us through with concern and without condescension. The staff is attentive but unobtrusive. At one point we wondered how our wine glasses had been refilled — the waiter had done so, without our noticing.
We left O'Leary's with the good feeling you get when you're treated like company.
O'Leary's Seafood Restaurant
Rating: 3 stars