The Sheraton is a harbor-area hotel without a place on the water. There's a stunning view of tall city buildings from its Impulses bar -- a jazzy place with three movie screens and nine TV sets that broadcast in unison somebody singing something -- but McHenry's, the Sheraton's restaurant, has no outlook.
Its dining room is restful, spacious, vacuumed and featureless, like most rooms required to be a great many things to a great many people. We caught it almost empty on two different nights, but its fortunes probably vary with the tides of the convention trade.
We came having seen McHenry's new ad: "Samplings Menu -- appetizer-size portions of creative entrees -- 'A little of this, a little of that . . .' " A nice idea.
The two-page samplings menu lists seven dishes that cost $3.95 each, seven dishes that cost $4.95 each, and six dishes that cost $5.95 each. Choose one dish from each of the three groups and you pay a special price of $13.95. (A regular menu exists, but to see it, you have to ask.)
We had two specials one night, and a dinner of a la carte dishes another night. First time around, we learned that the basic format was proteins and spinach. Second time, when we ordered a baked potato for $1.50 and a plate of grilled vegetables for $1.50 (slices of grilled fresh zucchini and yellow squash), we thought the potato and the squashes were the best things going.
Carpaccio and pasta and fettuccine tarragon both cost $3.95. The carpaccio wasn't the classic, suave Italian serving of raw beef, but rather, four thin slices of rare roast beef, seasoned and brown at the edges, glossed with a flavorful olive oil, and scattered with capers. Good enough, except for a clump of cold Parmesan-and-capers-enhanced rigatoni with the stiff texture of pasta cooked well before. The fettuccine dish was much better, a simple tossing of fettuccine and mushrooms in cream, tarragon (dried, we thought) and a bit of lemon juice.
From the $4.95 list, we sampled chicken with salsa and goat cheese, veal with basil and pine nuts, and rigatoni with white beans and lamb. The chicken lay over spinach, next to a radicchio leaf filled with hot salsa. It could have worked, but the chicken morsel was tough; also, McHenry's uses a fibrous, crinkly spinach that's less refined than smooth-leafed spinach. In addition, tomato-sauce red next to radicchio red is not visually appealing. Still, we liked the dish's two squares of zestful, clean-tasting goat cheese.
In the second dish, chewy veal lay over spinach in a bitter sauce that included dull, soft pine nuts. (Several other dishes were equally bitter and peculiarly granular, which led us to wonder whether the bitter foods shared a sauce-factory past.) To the side were more cold rigatoni.
The lamb cubes were delicious, but they came with a different bitter rigatoni, and with some bland white beans.
What's the score so far? Points for roast beef, olive oil, capers, fettuccine and mushrooms, goat cheese and lamb. Demerits for veal, sauces, rigatoni, beans and spinach.
The four $5.95 dishes we sampled were shrimp sunrise, swordfish Nicoise, crab cake and veal Stilton. The shrimp, aged into mealy softness, were served with spinach soaked in an orange juice sauce. The swordfish was dry but came with a pleasant salad of attractively sweet-and-sour-dressed corn kernels, onion, green pepper, black beans and red pepper, this time in a radicchio leaf that looked pretty.
The thin crab cake tasted marginally old, and came with a bitter-edged sauce made partly of mustard seeds. The tough veal was served on spinach, with a dried tomato, a dried yellow pepper and two dabs of genuine, pungent blue cheese. So, yes to the corn salad and the cheese, and no to the rest.
One evening we drank a forgettable Fetzer 1988 zinfandel ($20), but the second night's 1990 Rosemount chardonnay from Australia ($18), lightly fruity and lightly acidic, was one we'd happily choose again.
Neither of the two desserts we tried convinced us that the kitchen was strong on sweets. A mammoth square of bread pudding ($2.95) was oily and bland, while a dish of bananas Calypso ($3.95) consisted of real whipped cream, but also tasteless, ice-crystalled vanilla ice cream, slices of unripe banana, and a brown sauce that was somewhat thick, somewhat sweet and somewhat bitter.
Two quibbles: Black plates can look beautiful, but they make fingerprints glaringly visible. And both of our waiters poured wine to the brims of our glasses. Asked to pour less, both said they'd been trained to pour to the top. I vote for educating employees in wine niceties. Wine can be aromatic, given a chance, but its esters need room in which to volatilize. Paying $20, one wants a decent-size glass -- these were small and clunky -- and half a glass of air to go with the wine. Next: Sam's Waterside
Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, 300 S. Charles St.,
Lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily
ACCEPTS: All major credit cards
FEATURES: A sampling menu
NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes