Dining at Hampton's is fine, make no mistake about it.
The surroundings are elegant, the service exquisite, the pace leisurely. The view from the dining room's wide windows at the front of the Harbor Court Hotel is more busy street than scenic waterfront, but the food is so beautifully presented that all but a breathtaking view would lose out anyway.
The food, though wonderfully creative, did not always deliver on taste. And at Hampton's prices, there's no room to fall short.
Dining at Hampton's is expensive, make no mistake about it.
The prices are high enough -- entrees range from $18 to $37 -- that they detract from the pleasure of such fine dining. Can one plate of food really be worth $32, I found myself thinking somewhere between the complimentary chicken liver pate and the perfect raspberry shortcake.
But then, you're paying for Inner Harbor real estate and for labor to turn out picture-perfect plates every time -- and for the prestige of it all. Make no mistake about it.
Hampton's is an imposing room with an extremely high ceiling, traditional paintings, a massive breakfront on one wall and floor-to-ceiling windows lavishly draped. It has the feel of classic hotel dining rooms of old, but the colors -- in the rose-mauve-pink family -- keep it current.
No one thrusts a menu in front of you as you're sitting down at Hampton's. The cocktails come first and then the pate topped with a pansy and surrounded by mild Bremner wafers. Only later does the waiter bring the menus and a separate ''specials'' list and then there is plenty of time to peruse both.
Post-pate, we began with Maryland bisque ($6) and Smoked Shrimp ($12). The bisque, thinner than I'm used to, had lumps of crab, a shower of corn and a hint of sherry. In the center was a smoked oyster, wrapped in basil and spinach leaves. Although not an oyster lover, I ate this one before I realized what it was and even enjoyed the gentle smoky flavor it imparted to the bisque.
Not so gentle, however, was the smoking my husband's shrimp had been given. Less smoke, or none at all, given the immensity and delicacy of these shrimp, would have been better, and would still have been complemented by the bed of black bean salad laced with cumin and accompanied by a baby orchid.
The Belgian Endive Curls with Maytag Blue Cheese and Walnut Oil Dressing ($6) was spectacular. Iowa's Maytag Blue has all the richness and all the aromatic fragrance any lover of French bleu cheese could want. Combined with the oil, it was wonderful, even if it had been needlessly pureed.
Then came the sorbet, black current and grapefruit-flavored. My husband loved its deep-pink color and tangy sourness. I thought the tang too much.
Then came the evening's one certain disappointment -- my Spearfish with Lobster and Cilantro Sauce (a special at $32). The oblong spear had been rolled in minced shiitake mushrooms; the effect wasn't all that appetizing. Unfortunately, the fish was almost mushy and had little flavor, other than the deep earthiness of the mushrooms. I was unpleasantly surprised.
My husband fared better with his Baked Maine Lobster with Crabmeat in a Sherry, Saffron Creme ($37). Better, yes, but not exquisite. The lobster and crab meat with bits of carrot, onion and celery in a small casserole dish with a small puff pastry on the side didn't have a lot of flavor. Beautiful? Yes, but not as good as it looked.
The vegetables were better than the entrees. The rice with an herbed butter sauce was wonderful. The other vegetable -- an arrangement of luscious tomato sauce topped with zucchini wedges hollowed out to hold small broccoli spears -- was just as good as it looked.
Desserts were heaven, although, at $7.50 each, heaven came dear.
My Raspberry Shortcake consisted of a round, biscuit-like shortcake with lots of whipped creme and lots of large, perfectly placed raspberries, some on the biscuit, others cascading off into a shallow pool of creme anglaise. The raspberries tasted of high summer.
My husband's Chocolate Chesapeake was, likewise, a treat to the eye and the palate. Oyster-shaped shells of dark chocolate were filled, one with a chocolate mousse, the other with a white chocolate mousse. More raspberries and more creme anglaise finished the picture.
Throughout the meal, the service was flawless.
All three waiters we dealt with interchangeably were knowledgeable and delightful. Not stuffy, but not informal either. In more than two years of reviewing Baltimore restaurants, we found this to be the best service ever.
We also found this meal to be the most expensive -- $160, including a bottle of wine ($28), two cocktails and two coffees.
Harbor Court Hotel
550 S. Light St.
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; brunch, Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday.
Reservations: Recommended. If a window table is important, it's wise to request one.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.