Don’t Let the Neon Sign Fool You: Eat At Phillips

All I really know about Baltimore I learned from reruns of the Wire, Edgar Allen Poe stories, and watching Cal Ripken, Jr. play baseball. It’s easy to forget that Babe Ruth was born here, Baltimore is the home of America’s first umbrella factory, and our first post office system began right here in Charm City. (It is also easy to admit that I looked up everything after Babe Ruth. Thank heavens for google.)

This isn’t my first foray into the city, though. About three years ago, I stayed in the inner harbor area for a conference. During that trip, I spent most of my time exploring the area around the harbor with an evening walk to the Federal Hill area. Supper one night at the Rusty Scupper, breakfast each morning at Bohemes, and a late meal at an Irish Pub near Federal Hill park. I’m headed to the Scupper tonight to see if it is as good as I remember, Bohemes is closed, and for some reason Federal Hill seems way too long a walk this time around. You know you are getting old when after one beer and a good meal you start wondering what cable channels you have in the room.

As a general rule, I try to avoid chain restaurants when I’m in a city. Sure, Outback makes a decent steak, but I can get that steak in any city in America. I want, if at all possible, recipes built on local traditions with, I hope, quirky hometown twists. It’s no guarantee the food will be any good, mind you, but at least my taste buds will be disappointed in new and unique ways.

And they were let down my first meal this time around. The M&S Grill looks promising. It faces out toward the harbor, sits across from my hotel, and provided easy access after a day flying and sitting in airports. The front staff was friendly, the waitress, like so many people in cities these days, was from someplace not Baltimore (with an accent that screamed Boston)–they did live up to the Charm City slogan, though.

But friendly workers don’t make the food taste good or excuse the fact that M&S Grill is part of the Landry’s seafood chain.

Now, I’m sure Landry’s is delicious, but too often chains aim to democratize their dishes, ensuring they can please the family from Indianapolis while not offending the couple from San Francisco. They might use local seafood, but the spices and approach is the same.

Nonetheless, the beer was on the table before I knew what I had gotten myself into and a friendly wait staff and a cold beer can go a long way to helping food taste better.

Sometimes. I ordered the parmesan-encrusted flounder, mashed potatoes and seasonal veggies. Props to the folks in the kitchen because the potatoes and veggies where tasty. The potatoes had just enough flavor to make them worth eating and the vegetables were cooked just right without seasoning so I could taste the squash.

It’s good they were both so tasty because they must have forgotten the parmesan and just encrusted the flounder. Anything with parmesan should let the cheese dominate the first bite while the thing coated emerges somewhere near the back of the tongue. Maybe someone else’s fish got all the flavor?

The good news is another meal always awaits us.

I had been avoiding Phillips, partly because it has this massive neon sign and it sits next to the Barnes and Nobles. I’m a bit biased in favor of the understated and distrust blaring, garish signs.

I should probably rethink that philosophy.

Charm City again at the front desk and with the wait-staff. They were in the midst of seating a gigantic party of 48. I only know this because some grizzled guy standing near my table leaned over and told me he’s always wanted to just slide into an empty seat with these big company dinners and see if anyone notices. Since he was wearing a Phillips insignia on his shirt, I thought I might check his recommendation for dinner–get the inside scoop as it were.

He asked where I was from, told me he’s worked there for 26 years after owning a place on the beach, and then asked what I was thinking about eating. “What’s good?” I asked.

“The steak is great, but overpriced,” he said. “Beef prices are killing us and we have to charge too much for it.” He sat down at my table. “We are known for crabs so that’s a safe bet if you are hungry. Big chunks of crab.”

“What about the flounder stuffed with crab,” I asked.

“That’s one of mine. Delicious. Been making that for about 26 years.” He stood up, looking at the party of 48. “Gotta go. Hopefully, we can get these guys out of here by closing.”

The waitress stepped in, like a choreographed move, and asked what the executive chef recommended.

Yeah, it’s that kind of place, neon sign or not.

Practice makes perfect, by the way, on the flounder stuffed with crab.

Flounder, to me, is an interesting fish. Like most white fish, you have to be careful cooking it. Too long in the skillet or in the oven and you get a gloppy mess that feels like sawdust in your mouth. It’s one of the reasons you encrust it in something or pile lemon, tomatoes, or onions on it while it cooks.

At Phillips, they cook the flounder in its own cast iron dish sitting in what I assume is olive oil with garlic and other spices. The crab cake rests on top in the center of the fish.

Start on the edges as you eat, savor the fish that holds together long enough to chew. The fish definitely holds up on its own. Take a bight of the crusty french bread that is light and airy on the inside, and then make your way to the center. Before you begin blending the two, take a bite of the crab cake, let the flavors wash across your tongue and then eat the meal as the chef intended. The crab cake jumps out at you but the flavor lasts only until the fish’s garlic flavor and different consistency kick in. As the disparate but complementary flavors mix, there is (or at least should be) that almost inaudible sigh as your stomach knows you made the right choice for dinner.

I ordered the house salad and creamed spinach on the side. They recommended the season vegetables, but squash two nights in a row didn’t seem like a great idea. Plus, I’m a sucker for creamed spinach. In retrospect, the vegetables make more sense. Their spinach has a light, garlicy cream sauce. Combined with the fish and crab cake, I was definitely safe from vampires that night (and probably for another week.) I would have, as I say, been better off with a clean vegetable to avoid conflicts with the main course.

In the interest of fairness, I should warn you to take your appetite and your wallet. The meal is deceptively filling and the folks at Phillips aren’t cooking in the name of charity, but you will, I think, feel like it’s money well spent. After all, they have to pay for that neon sign out front.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Don’t Let the Neon Sign Fool You: Eat At Phillips

  1. Reading this at breakfast time makes my porridge seem very dull. I would love to dine with you. You seem to find the creme de LA creme

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