It was a good, small ad: "Serious Steaks/The Baltimore Grille/A Classic Steakhouse in the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel/Call 385-6601." What do you think of the brash swagger of "serious steaks"? Followed by a phone number? It reads like a call to Philip Marlowe. Serious steaks at this location. Step on it. (What are frivolous steaks? Silly, sniggering steaks? Do some steaks these days wish themselves soybean patties?)
Steaks at the new Baltimore Grille in the Omni are big hunks of meat. The restaurant's shining knives look like lethal weapons, and the veal chop weighs a pound. For lentil soup, go elsewhere. The Grille's 1-pound New York strip loin sells for $17.95, a 3/4 -pound pork loin for $15.95, and a 1 1/2 -pound grille cut, or prime rib, for $18.95.
(But about calling the Omni an "Inner Harbor Hotel": The Omni is not in the Inner Harbor. The Omni is on Fayette Street, where it's been all along, and where there are no apparent views of water.)
Cut from an area of the hotel next to the ex-Jacqueline Cafe and Bistro (now Jackie's Cafe), the Baltimore Grille is relatively small and, because there's a visible grill at one side, somewhat casual, but it does not feel like a coffee shop. The level of light is dignified, and brocade at the backs of the banquettes, better-than-bland artwork on the walls, dark colors, and some chic half lamps on pillars make it a plausible environment for businessmen dressed in somber suits.
What we first liked was the sherry we were served, a Sandeman Royal Esmerelda oloroso. In our experience, most restaurants sell Dry Sack and not much else. When we also liked our wine, a $28 Robert Stemmler 1986 Sonoma County pinot noir, we concluded someone at the Grille has an interest in spirits.
By contrast, we couldn't not notice some very poor bread. We tried three rolls -- a salt roll, one with raisins in it, and one that was plain. All three were gummy, dull, mass-production affairs, served with butter that had absorbed refrigerator smells.
Our appetizers were more respectable. Oysters Rockefeller ($6.95) consisted of a half-dozen fresh oysters warm and juicy under a blanket of creamed chopped spinach lacquered with egg and oil-glazed under the grill. It was a simple oyster preparation and not a proper oysters Rockefeller, but we liked it. Good chunks of crab stuffed the half-dozen crab-filled mushrooms spiced with celery seeds ($7.50), whose only problem was too much salt.
For main courses, we ordered red snapper princesse ($16.95) (the name!), domestic, twin-cut lamb chops ($19.95), and the 1 1/2 -pound, grilled cut of beef ($18.95). The red snapper taught us what we wanted to know about the kitchen's cooking knowledge. Listed under "House Specialties," it was the only one of the three entrees that required serious culinary skill. The menu described it as a "Tender Filet stuffed with a creamy Asparagus Mousse, baked and com-plemented with a Brown Butter Sauce." In practice, the asparagus mousse was a green-tinted custard, the butter sauce a tasteless, pale-yellow pool, and the fish old and overcooked.
The lamb chops, by contrast, were excellent. Though they had only to be bought from a worthy supplier and grilled a predetermined number of minutes, the Baltimore Grille's were tender, flavorful, medium rare, which we wanted, and sizzling on the plate, or rather on a pewterlike food vessel. We guessed that the immense 1 1/2 -pound chunk of beef was one grade down in the meat packer's grading system, but it still ranked high among meats.
When we read on the menu that our "server [would] offer over twenty condiments to complement [our] selection," we tried to imagine the possibilities. Worcestershire sauce? Tabasco? It turned out, the 20 included salt and pepper, a special billing justified by a pepper grinder the length and heft of a Jacobean bedpost. Those we tried were excellent: a mixture of pungent JTC green and black olives in oil, a fresh autumn fruit chutney, a lively tomato salsa, and an odd, likable horseradish and honey combination.
All three plates held partially scooped out tomatoes firm as tennis balls and filled with rice and horseradish, which maybe sounded good at the drawing board. Starches were inexplicably expensive. Two dollars and ninety-five cents bought a microwaved potato, or a square of cold potato gratin on a cold metal plate, or a large scoop of plain steamed rice.
One of our desserts ($3.95 each), a Kahlua cake, was as predictable as acid-washed jeans, but a strawberry tart,
described by our waiter as "homemade," offered fresh strawberries under a thin fruit glaze, over a pleasant custard and a crisp crust.
Service was elaborately sensitive, but we were recognized. I like to think everyone will experience similar attention.
The Baltimore Grille, Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, 101 W. Fayette St., 385-6601
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Saturdays 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Steaks and chops