A school of golden fish swims across the ground floor windows of the 2 East Wells apartment complex, luring diners to Minnow (2 E. Wells St.,  759-6537, minnowbaltimore.com), the latest culinary venture by Ben and Jake Lefenfeld, the brothers behind Meadow Mill's La Cuchara. The theme here is regional seafood (and not overtly Gilligan's Island, though the bar offers two cocktails, "The Millionaire," and "And His Wife" named for Mr. and Mrs. Howell. Perhaps we might see homages to other characters—FarmGrrl? Smart=Sexy?—in the future?), and the vibe and menu are more playful and casual than its sister restaurant. Seafood as a "concept" in the land of pleasant living may seem like a no-brainer, but decent, affordable, dedicated, contemporary seafood restaurants haven't always been easy to find in Baltimore in the last decade or so, and places like Minnow, along with Dylan's Oyster Cellar, more recently, and Thames Street Oyster House, several years into its tenure on Thames Street, are welcome additions.
Minnow's interior reflects a now familiar post-industrial design trend with exposed ductwork, bare tables, and concrete floors. Along one long dining room wall, sardine cans tacked to a chalkboard in small groupings suggest secret messages that might be Morse code for "I love fish." The dining room is buffeted on one side by an open kitchen gleaming in stainless steel. On the other side, a bar area tucked behind a glass door physically separates the space from the dining room, but does nothing to dissipate the noise levels, which can be very high. You may finding yourself yelling at your dining companion in effort to be heard.
The bar, however, is a great introduction to Minnow, and the Lefenfelds clearly understand what makes a good happy hour. It would be very easy to fill up on $5 infused gin and tonics (the night we dined the infusion was a very fruity cucumber and basil—not for those who prefer their gin bone dry or more herbaceous), and avocado toast, moules frites, or whatever the featured plate of the day is without even hitting the main menu. But eating in the dining room allows you a chance to stretch out and sample the menu, which changes frequently and runs the gamut from inexpensive nibbles (here called "bait," natch) like sardines or the pickled white anchovies known as boquerones to smaller plates (ceviche, salad, a choice of several soups) to full-on entrees, mostly seafood-based, with an occasional offering for carnivores (a burger, steak, fried chicken).
Minnow's menu both nods to tradition and riffs on it. Two perfect, plump fried oysters ($4) that nearly explode in your mouth come tucked into a sardine tin with a bright slick of saffron sauce that gives the little snack a sort of pop art look. Terrapin stew ($7), an uncommon find these days outside of, perhaps, Easton's Tidewater Inn, arrives doused with sherry and garnished with hard-boiled egg, its requisite accompaniments. It's well made and layered with spice, with more heat than other versions I've had, but it will probably appeal more when the temps cool down.
I was disappointed, however, in Minnow's rendition of Baltimore coddies ($18), more because of what they weren't—fish cakes made from dried salt cod and mashed potatoes—than what they were—respectable, if bland, fish cakes made with fresh cod and mashed potatoes garnished with an overly sweet citrus sauce. They bear little resemblance to the humble fried food once served in Jewish delis and East Baltimore taverns, often with saltines and yellow mustard. So maybe it's just a naming issue. Semantics aside, though, I do think that a traditional-style coddie could make an addictive happy hour snack here.
Better is a generous small plate of grilled calamari ($15) garnished with green olives and dabs of spicy romesco. But the merluza ($23)—also known as hake, similar to cod—was hands down the favorite dish of the evening. With the lightest of dustings to make it crisp and thinly sliced wafers of potato to absorb a delicate but potent garlic crème sauce, the dish was balanced, lovely to look at, better to taste. Next time I'd also give in and order the moules frites, after seeing so many orders of glossy black mussels peeking out under tangles of gorgeous fries that were delivered throughout the dining room.
Minnow has a full dessert list, but on a warm evening, the housemade ice creams are particularly inviting, so follow your instinct and order an ice cream sandwich ($7), particularly if the nut-flecked butter pecan version is on offer.
Throughout the evening, Minnow's staff was on their toes, offering tastes of wine (the list offers some unusual and welcome selections, like a Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc, for example), knowledgeably explaining dishes, and allowing us to take time to catch up before turning our thoughts to ordering. Free valet service also fits the bill in a neighborhood where parking can be a gamble.
Like the service, most things at Minnow are straightforward, but if you crave a little spectacle, end (or begin) your evening with the bar's version of an old fashioned. Dubbed the Velvet Underground, the drink arrives at the table obscured by a cloud of smoke trapped under a glass cheese dome. Once released from its bubble, the clouds swirl over the cocktail, like a potion, rendering woodsy, smoky sips that waft away the first taste or two. It's a neat trick, more Nico than John Cale, but once the smoke clears, you realize that the basic ingredients are all quality. Just like Minnow.
Minnow is open for dinner seven days a week.