The Polo Grill is more and less than I expected.
More bustling, more noisy, more friendly and more dedicated to American food that's innovative without being bizarre.
And, correspondingly, this newcomer to the Baltimore restaurant scene is less intimate, less pretentious, less elite and less French than I expected. In fact, it isn't French at all. I must not have been paying attention.
It isn't, however, less expensive.
Since The Polo Grill opened early this year at the Inn at the Colonnade, it has been a hot spot, garnering raves even in its infancy and demanding weekend dinner reservations weeks in advance.
The accolades are well deserved and the reservations still hard to come by. A week ahead, we could get reservations only before 7:30 or after 9 for a Saturday night. We opted for 7 and joined many other diners in the clublike dining room, rich with wood and dark green walls.
During our three-hour dinner, the crowd built, then thinned only slightly. Many servers bustled about, as diners came and went. All this motion, coupled with a slight spillover from the small, busy bar at the restaurant's entrance, gives The Polo Grill an energy that may be deliberate.
Frankly, it was a little more frenzy and a lot more noise than I like with fine dining.
We did not, however, consider our service hurried. The pace seemed nearly perfect. Each course appeared as if on cue; the water glasses were always filled, the bread basket never empty. When we were seated, our friendly waitress took our cocktail orders before even presenting the menus -- a nice touch.
The Polo Grill's menu is simple, but intriguing. There is a lot of seafood to choose from, an ample beef and veal selection, three pasta entrees and a variety of appetizers and salads that combine traditional Maryland offerings with more contemporary dishes. The specials appear simply -- with prices -- on a typed page inside the menu's cover.
Four of us were able to sample many items, and found most of them outstanding. For starters, we chose two soups, Oysters on the Half Shell ($6.95) and Atlantic Mussels Fisherman's Style ($5.95).
Although the mussels and oysters were good, the soups -- Southern Crab and Sweet Corn Chowder ($3.50) and Minestrone ($3.75) -- were the standouts. The chowder was rich with splashes of sherry. The minestrone was thicker than most with a beautiful, complex flavor.
Because the entrees are not served with a salad, my husband and I shared a Classic Caesar Salad ($4.75) and our companions the Tomato-Mozzarella Salad ($4.50).
The Casesar's crisp flavors lived up to its name, although my husband found it a bit oily. We thought it unusual not to be prepared at the table. The tomato-mozzarella combination featured generous portions of the cheese alternated with tomato slices. Although they enjoyed it, our friends agreed it would have been better in high summer when tomatoes are lush with flavor.
For our entrees, we shopped the menu well, deciding at last on the Wild Rockfish from the specials list ($18.95), Fried Lobster Tail ($26.95), Sauteed Grouper ($18.95) and Pasta with Blackened Chicken ($13.95).
None was disappointing. The standout was clearly the fried lobster tail, a house specialty and a most unusual dish. The lobster tail filled the oversized dinner plate, prompting all of us to ask, "How big was the rest of this beast?" The waitress said she did not know, it had gone elsewhere.
The lobster tail, served with squash, was breaded and fried, giving the firm, moist white meat a crunchy coating. It was reminiscent of the best treatment afforded catfish -- leading my husband to wonder if the lobster might not have been even better without the breading, which seemed to somewhat mask the lobster's delicacy.
The rockfish was tender and moist; the sauce, thick with corn relish, unusual but not unpleasant. The chanterelles on top were lovely. Even in Maryland, rockfish has rarely been treated so well.
The grouper, served with leeks and flavored with tomato, was equally moist. The large ribbed "penne pasta" and chicken were served in a Parmesan herb butter.
We were all struck by the size of our entrees. The pasta, for instance, filled a huge bowl and looked like a family-size serving. One serving of the delicately sauteed fresh spinach ($3.50) was also enough for four.
The desserts were offered on a separate menu and, again, the choices were difficult. We chose two Chocolate Mousse Cakes ($4.75), Cheesecake ($4.75) and Chocolate and Vanilla Bread Pudding ($4.95).
There was a split decision on the mousse cake, which was itself split into a layer of white chocolate and a layer of dark. It disappointed my husband, who thought it more chiffon than mousse. Our companion, however, liked it. The cheesecake, with a chocolate wafer crust, was rich but not outstanding.