The Pavilion at the Walters is a work in progress.
You could see it in its cautious beginnings as a museum cafe, serving lunch and tea only, when chef Mark Hoffman was clearly capable of greater things. Now the Pavilion is testing the waters for dinner; it's open Thursday and Friday nights, with a very ZTC limited menu and an equally limited wine list. Presumably it will expand both its hours and the menu if things go well.
The dining room itself is a striking space that still seems incomplete some nine months after the restaurant opened. A grand entry staircase curves down into the room where the two-story-high white walls are surprisingly bare -- surprising because the restaurant is, after all, part of a museum. (Our waiter told us they're in the process of deciding what will eventually be hung on those walls.)
A huge fountain with a bronze statue of a boy feeding grapes to a baby panther dominates the room (carrying out the dining motif, I suppose). Tall columns break up the airy, streamlined space. It ends up being sort of Greco-Roman Modern, if you can visualize that. This would be a cold room if it weren't for the dusty pink tablecloths, flame-stitched chair cushions, the sprays pink orchids and, at dinner time, small candles flickering on each table.
I remember years ago Tom Freudenheim, then director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, wrote to me when I gave its lunch spot -- not to be confused with the current Museum Cafe -- a critical review. He pointed out that a museum shouldn't be in the food business. (I agreed; but like it or not, it was.) The Walters has solved that problem by hiring Classic Catering People to run its operation. It does so with panache.
The new dinner menu isn't extensive: four first courses, five entrees, some lighter dishes. As befits a museum, this is food that pleases the eye as well as the palate. Attention has been paid to color, the placement of the food on the plate, the pooling of sauces, yet none of it seems fussy. For instance, ovals of boneless duck ($17) in a dark, sweet sauce were fanned around half a poached pear; brilliant green sugar snap peas and bright red raspberries added an explosion of color.
My personal favorite was the tuna ($18.50): char-striped, moist and rare at the center like a good steak. With its julienne of zucchini and red pepper and touch of curry, it would be hard to beat for looks and flavor. A tender grilled veal steak ($19.50) on a bed of cabbage with wild mushrooms came close, though.
Two of our three first courses were just as well done. Tissue-thin smoked salmon and fat pink shrimp were arranged with deep-green watercress and small, golden corn blini ($8.50). The seafood and greenery were drizzled with vinaigrette, and the dish fairly sang with flavor. Pan-seared, moist scallops ($7.50) paired with elegant little vegetables were also irresistible.
Was the food perfection? No. A potato tart ($6) starter fell short of the rest of our meal. There was so much potato, fontina cheese and onion filling in the rich little tart shell that it seemed too heavy for a first course, and the thin rings of onion were almost raw. A Pavilion salad ($4.50) lacked the sophistication of the rest of the meal and was overdressed for my taste, though the oil, lemon and Dijon mustard dressing was delicious. A delicate, tender creme caramel ($4.25) didn't need a large swirl of whipped cream on top. Ditto the homey, appealing toasted lemon poppy poundcake with warm cut-up fresh fruit ($4.75). (The white and dark chocolate mousse cake for $5.95 was so hopelessly decadent that whipped cream could only add to its appeal.)
Those are quibbles, though. On to a couple of more serious points.
When I called to make reservations, the phone was answered with an irritated "Yes?," as if I shouldn't be bothering them. A few days later I called to ask what was on the new dinner menu. I was told it was lunchtime and a terrible time to call. I was put on hold until I finally gave up and hung up. (Why not just tell me to call back?)
Once in the restaurant, I asked if we could be seated farther away from a large, potentially noisy party. The maitre d' waved us to the very next table, even though three-quarters of the dining room was empty. When I started to protest, the busboy who was setting the second table asked if we were going to be there. The maitre d' said, "I don't know if she'll sit here or not." The answer was not, and I don't like being referred to as "she" when I'm standing right there -- especially in a place where I'm about to spend a lot of money.
The moral of the story? Put up with your persnickety customers with good grace; you never know when they might be restaurant critics.
Pavilion at the Walters, Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St., (410) 727-2233. Lunch Tuesdays to Saturdays, brunch Sundays, dinner Thursdays and Fridays only, closed Mondays. Accepts major credit cards. No smoking. Wheelchair access.
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