Chad Wells made a name for himself at Alewife, the popular tavern across from the Hippodrome Theatre, first with a sublime, spectacularly smoked hamburger and then by working magic on the fearsome invasive species known as the snakehead.
Wells grilled snakehead, sauteed it and, memorably, folded it into a bracingly good ceviche with orange, mango, peppers and cucumber.
A few months back, Wells packed up his knives and left Alewife for Annapolis. He left his burger behind but took his ceviche with him to the Rockfish, a sprawling restaurant that sits on the gateway to Annapolis' cozy Eastport neighborhood.
"I want to a be a front-runner in establishing local and invasive food in Annapolis," Wells said at the time. "I want to put my heart out there with food."
Based on a recent dinner at the Rockfish, Wells is about halfway there. Dinner at the Rockfish has its great moments, some of them from seafood, but there's also a splendid chicken dish you should try. The ceviche itself, refreshing and juicy, is worth a trip.
But Annapolis, which by all rights should be a national destination for inventive seafood, is a conservative dining town. And you can see where Wells has pulled back.
I was disappointed in a calamari appetizer, which had a pleasantly crunchy, chipotle-spiked buttermilk batter but seemed designed to make no one think fo squid when they were eating it. It was more like a bar snack than great seafood.
I wondered about this, and I asked Wells about it later. He said he had tried to introduce a new calamari dish, one more like the version he served at Alewife, but customers kept asking for the old version.
That can happen. You certainly don't want to see a chef run roughshod over diners, but you hate to see diners insist on mediocre food when they can have something better. A good wait staff can help educate diners. That wasn't happening when we visited, though. The service was competent but complacent. We weren't even told about the evening's specials.
The Rockfish provides a good setting for an upbeat and casual dinner. The atmosphere has the masculine, nautical trimmings of a marina club — wood floors, ceiling fans and timbered ceilings. The best rooms are the small ones located off to the side of the main one.
Where Wells is getting his way, the results are very good. There's the ceviche, which is not only a tasty appetizer but a pretty one, with chunks of fish, mango and cucumber layered over slices of orange. Wild boar sliders, another winning appetizer, are served on toasty brioche bun and layered colorfully, with pickled carrots, shaved fennel and daikon radish sprouts. They look great, and the flavors and textures collide effectively.
The best entree we tried was, as it happened, not seafood-based. How a kitchen handles chicken dishes tells you a lot, and Wells' kitchen did admirable work with an entree of seared chicken, from the brown-skinned and juicy pieces of chicken to the full-bodied tomato pan sauce chunked up with capers, spinach and chunks of chorizo.
You can see Wells testing the waters with a dish built around the Potomac Rive blue catfish, another invasive species. Here, he lures diners with a popular method, blackening, and straightforward accompaniments like a Creole remoulade and Anson Mills grits laced with Grafton cheddar. Only slight oversalting kept it from full success.
Wells should keep working to find a better preparation for Chesapeake Bay rockfish. His entree of pan-seared rockfish, served with a crab risotto cake, chimichurri butter and what the menu calls "oceanic gravy," has appealing aspects — the fish itself, for instance, was well handled — but never fully coheres into the kind of magnificent dish it should be.
Yes, I'm calling for magnificence here. The Rockfish should have a rockfish dish that knocks your socks off.
The Rockfish is a curious case. The restaurant just received permission to build a rooftop deck, a first for Eastport, which will be a welcome amenity for the neighborhood. But it could be a distraction, too. There's still work to be done with the cocktail list, which is full of sweet things, and the dessert list, which needs a dose of originality.
And the staff needs to fully support the food they're serving. The ingredients are all here, and it would be a shame if the biggest obstacle to the Rockfish becoming a first-class seafood restaurant turned out to be the people who eat there.