A Sumptuous Sunday Brunch

DINING OUT

March 22, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

You've got to give the chef at Hampton's points for stoicism. How can he bear to create homemade lobster tortellini in a shellfish broth, or chilled smoked pheasant with wild mushrooms and sherry dressing -- and know they're being eaten with blueberry muffins and croissants and washed down with endless glasses of orange juice?

But that's brunch for you. Or rather that's brunch at Hampton'swhere the sparkling wine -- and more impressively, the fresh orange juice -- flows like water; the water is chilled bottled spring water; the plates are garnished with orchids, and "eggs poached the way you like" means eggs Sardu (with spinach, artichoke bottoms, crab and hollandaise), with slices of sirloin covered with bearnaise sauce on the side.

Brunch at Hampton's is not for the faint of heart, in all senses of the phrase.

Much of the food is elegant, as is any meal at Hampton's. But it's not the primary reason to have brunch there. Think of it as a place to go when you want to be pampered with extravagant service. When you want to impress someone ostentatiously and lavishly. And, most important, when you haven't eaten earlier in the day.

Hampton's is the Harbor Court Hotel's main restaurant. The dining room is quite luxurious and at the same time -- dare I say it? -- just a little nouveau riche. The room is drenched in salmon-pink tones, down to the china, with gilt-framed paintings and wall sconces, extravagant faux flower arrangements, Chinese screens and mahogany sideboards. A fragrant magnolia blossom floats in a crystal bowl on each lavishly appointed table. Best of all are the large, soft, comfortable chairs -- more like armchairs than dining room chairs.

Once seated, you choose from a menu that offers brunch for $19.95 (one of four entrees such as Belgian waffles or smoked chicken breast); $22.95 (the choices are getting more elaborate: you could have, say, cold poached salmon or the Southwestern feature of the day); or $27.95 (with this one, brunch might consist of lobster or veal).

Each price category offers its own choice of appetizers, and all include unlimited amounts of Charles de Fere, a respectable French sparkling wine; kir royales, or mimosas. Waiters roam the dining room with large pitchers of fresh orange juice, and fill your butter plate with warm croissants, blueberry muffins and twirls of sweet butter.

Start with Maryland crab soup and the soup plate will arrivempty except for a large spoonful of snowy lump crab meat. The waiter ladles a flavorful, gently spiced vegetable soup over it. Order a Hampton's salad for a first course and you'll get sprightly greens tossed in a creamy dressing with radicchio, capers, tomatoes and lobster, scallops and shrimp. With a purple pansy on the side. Or be a bit more adventuresome and have warm, puffy little triangles of phyllo pastry stuffed with melting feta cheese and served with grilled green apple slices.

If you feel like breakfast food for the main course, stay away from the three-cheese omelette ($19.95). The eggs had been cooked so long the omelet was stratified; even the melted fontina, herbed Boursin and Swiss couldn't make it very palatable. (Of course, the tender slices of sirloin with bearnaise on the side are practically a meal in themselves, so the person who ordered the omelet didn't starve.) Poached eggs a la Benedict, layered with English muffins and Canadian bacon, were more successful, except for a surprisingly tasteless hollandaise. To serve the two eggs with sliced sirloin and bearnaise sauce, though, seems wickedly extravagant.

Only the Southwestern feature of the day really showed the kitchen's range and talent. This day it was wahoo, a perfectly fresh, mild fish steak expertly grilled and laid on a gently spicy Cajun cream sauce with two plump shrimp. Its accompaniment was nothing short of sensational: a quiveringly tender slice of carrot flan -- almost a souffle of pureed carrots, milk and eggs.

At this point in the meal you may be so used to being waited on that walking to the dessert table will seem like a hardship. In that case, simply ask the waiter to bring you a slice of chocolate oblivion. Of course, if you make the trip you can pick your own from the tray of tiny eclairs, jewel-like fruit tarts and miniature cheesecakes. Or have a full-sized slice of apricot torte or chocolate mousse cake. Desserts, as many as you want, are included in the price of brunch.

Hampton's, Harbor Court Hotel, 550 Light St., (410) 234-0550. Brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: yes.Next: Pavilion at the Walters

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