On Sept. 30, 1973, the first Eater's Digest, written by me, appeared in the pages of The Sun. I was a free-lancer, and the agreement was that I would get $50, out of which I'd pay for dinner and keep what was left over as payment for the column.
My new boss wanted me to start with Danny's, the fanciest, most expensive restaurant in town. I'd never been to Danny's; once there I realized that if my husband and I ordered at will, I was essentially going to be writing for free. My solution was to order from the pre-theater menu, which as I remember didn't cost much over $10 a person.
My boss wasn't pleased. Go back, he told me, and -- his exact words -- "order the good stuff." He knew, and he was absolutely right, that people then didn't want to read about saving money. ** They wanted to salivate with me over huge, juicy cuts of beef swimming in bordelaise sauce and stagger through peach melba "hopelessly smothered in whipped cream," as I said in the review that appeared in the paper.
The check for the second dinner came to around $50; I'm not sure whether I actually lost money in the end or just didn't make any. (I eventually got my nerve up and insisted on getting paid a flat fee -- $35 if I remember right -- plus expenses for two.)
When I started out I was very green, but I loved good food, I loved eating out and I loved telling people about it. (How green was I? The managing editor, taking a look at the raw copy of my first review, gently suggested that perhaps I meant Beluga caviar instead of Belgian caviar.)
I continued as the restaurant critic for the morning paper until the early '80s, when I switched to the Sun Magazine, and eventually gave up the column to work full time as food and home editor. I kept up with Baltimore's restaurants, though, by writing for the twice-yearly Dining Out guide (and sometime later also editing it). So for almost 20 years, one way or another, I've been reviewing restaurants for The Sun.
Now I'm back full time, and I get to do what I wanted to do two decades ago: Go to a luxury restaurant, order from the prix-fixe menu and write about it. My guess is that in 1992 most readers are more interested in splurging economically than consuming conspicuously.
By whatever name you call them -- early-bird specials, pre-theater, prix fixe -- ordering from these special menus is a good way to save appreciable amounts of money while sampling fairly haute cuisine in luxurious surroundings. What's the downside? You have to eat earlier than you may want to, usually 5:30 to 6:30 on a weeknight; obviously restaurants are trying to get customers in when business is slow. And portions are usually smaller than if you order from the regular menu -- something I like if I'm going to have several courses, but moderation isn't to everyone's taste.
Not all of Baltimore's top-of-the-line restaurants offer prix-fixe dinners. But I did find two -- one Italian, one French -- that are known for their handsome dining rooms as well as interesting food. The prix-fixe menus of both offer a choice of first courses, entrees and desserts -- many of them drawn from the regular menu.
From the moment you arrive at the gilded doors of the Brass Elephant, a row house converted to a restaurant, you know it's zTC something special. Inside, the rooms are subdued, serene and gorgeous, done in understated colors with ornately carved teak paneling, parquet floors, crystal chandeliers and elaborate brass appointments. (The name comes from the elephant-head sconces.) Vases of gladioluses grace the marble mantelpieces. Tables are well-spaced and handsomely set with white linen and good china and flatware. Only the kitchen's tendency to put doilies between dishes undercuts the elegance of the table setting.
Don't expect to get the prix-fixe menu unless you ask. If you're tempted by the regular menu of northern Italian dishes, you'll spend between $15 for grilled chicken Vesuvio and $22 for an individual rack of lamb. (The price includes vegetables and a salad.) Compare that with the prix-fixe dinner, where for $15.95 you can get a first course, salad, dessert and coffee with that same boneless breast of chicken. It's marinated in balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic; grilled to moist goodness, and prettily arranged with grilled vegetables: a slice of eggplant, strips of sweet and green pepper and radicchio. (Although I'm not convinced there's ever any reason to grill radicchio.)
Other choices for a main course that evening were sauteed scallops, sirloin steak with green peppercorn or bearnaise sauce, grilled calf's liver, and sweetbreads. The fish of the day was trout -- delicious, but it was a dainty portion even for me. The small, delicately flavored fillet was crusted with herbs and crumbs and decorated with an elegant beurre blanc. Too bad the sauce was full of chopped, winter-white tomatoes.