Some restaurants beam out self-amused messages, some look old, wise, inured to any eventuality, some feel tentative, others are evangelical about some point of view. According to my reading of Hampton's, at around 5 o'clock, before the early diners ascend those lovely, carpeted stairs, the restaurant straightens its rose-curtained shoulders and whispers reassuring adjectives to itself: I'm expensive, I'm young, I'm glossy and I'm ambitious. It won't smile gently and add "seasoned" for several years yet.
In the meantime, it offers youthful energy and drive. Could a mature waiter perform the elaborate whisking away of the silver domes over the entrees without a wry shrug? Hampton's earnest staff makes it sober choreography. They tend to inquire, too, over and over, about whether or not one is happy because they're working visibly to satisfy us old sorts who, for a variety of reasons, find ourselves, at least for one evening, with deep pockets. Gardenias? Port? Pansies in the potatoes? Anything you like.
Food knowledge at Hampton's is strong but not superb. Some dishes are excellent. Others approach (heavens! and at these prices!) ordinariness. Everything is good enough to please at some level. Four of us recently spent three hours lounging in Hampton's extraordinarily comfortable chairs, sipping a striking Auxerrois pinot blanc ($25), an Adelsheim pinot noir ($37), coffees ($2.50), and dining on a three-course meal that came to $250 before tip. We thought hard about the food. Had we gone in a less critical state of mind, we may have left more purely enthusiastic.
We began with escargots ($7), lobster bisque ($7), seared scallops ($10) and a lobster and seafood terrine ($10), which I have listed from OK to better to best. The snails were what snails shouldn't seem to be -- chewy muscles pried from shells. Their tastes remained immutably snail, in spite of the delicious, cheese-laced, thick bechamel that bound them, topped by a curve of puff pastry. The lobster bisque was closer to a flour-thickened potage than a bisque, and less refined than Hampton's in the past, though still pleasant -- a thick, deep orange soup poured over two large chunks of lobster.
The seared scallops, barely warm at the center, pleased me, but others at the table thought their waxy centers too underdone. To the side, rectangles of cumin-flavored black bean pancake fanned next to a bright orange dab of hot-chilied mayonnaise. The menu promised roasted garlic with the snails, and garlic in the scallops mayonnaise, but in practice the kitchen shied away from garlic with any swagger to it.
Happily, the lobster and seafood terrine was first-class -- two slices of mousse consisting of lobster, salmon and other swimming fish, delicately gelatinous, steamed in a wrap of leek greens, set over dressed, subtly wilted fresh spinach greens.
Two of our entrees were fish: mahi-mahi ($20) and a special of swordfish ($31, selected from specials printed separately without prices). Both were cooked to a beautiful, perfect silkiness. Probably because mahi-mahi sounds Hawaiian -- Maui
Maui? -- it was served with a ginger mango salsa; one of my friends characterized the dish as "fish and jam." There was also a scattering of smoked scallops -- white lumps that tasted smoked and had scallops' texture.
The cornmeal-dusted swordfish was a simple saute. Accompanying it and two other entrees were a mixture of lentils and red pepper and a hillock of what looked like a cross between angel hair pasta and onion strings (and whose tastes were empty), topped by a stem of broccoli.
Sauced with a sweet meat glaze mixed with shiitake mushrooms, a generous cut of farm-raised New York strip steak ($28) had good flavor. It came with a thickish, fried-slightly-too-long bird's nest of potato filled with faintly acid squares of squash. We thought a boneless breast of duck stuffed with a rosemary-herbed forcement ($24) the most interesting entree, frankly because it required more of a chef's ingenuity and time, with its twist of meat, the light, mild stuffing and a gentle orange and ginger sauce.
For sweets, we ordered assiettes (for two, at $14), wide plates on which were assembled all five desserts of the evening. Two were dull -- the dry berry shortcake and a strawberry phyllo Napoleon, its phyllo crackly and flat as paper, its strawberries pale and firm. Three were terrific -- a banana bread pudding, and two chocolate glories, one called oblivion, the other Terrine Brazilienne.
We had fun. We liked the sights and the treatment. But the price tag is high, the food not quite brilliant. *
Hampton's, Harbor Court Hotel, 550 Light St., 234-0550
Hours: Dinner Tuesdays to Sundays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Accepts: AMEX, M.C., VISA
Features: American cuisine
No-smoking area: No
Wheelchair access: Yes