Once people find out I'm The Sun's restaurant critic, they want to know one thing: What's your favorite restaurant?
I have the stock answers, which happen to be true in my case. I don't have one favorite restaurant. I like lots of different kinds of food. It depends on my mood. It depends on whether it's a special occasion or a Friday-night supper. And so on.
I visit a lot of good restaurants in my job, places I recommend wholeheartedly when asked where to take a spouse for an anniversary or entertain out-of-town clients. But even if the food was fabulous, these aren't always the places I return to on my own.
There are very few restaurants I get back to more than every four or five years, and fewer still that I could count as personal favorites. But there are a few. The places where you start enjoying yourself the moment you step through the door. The places where the food is sometimes spectacular if not always flawless. The places where the setting is so special you feel special. The reliable places. The places where you feel at home. The places where you get good value for your money. The places where you don't, but who cares? (No meal is really worth $100 for two in the grand scheme of things.)
So I can't give you my one favorite restaurant, but I can narrow the list down to the top 10. With the usual disclaimers. There are still a lot of places in the area I haven't gotten to. And note that my favorites aren't necessarily the four-star restaurants that appear in the dining guides time after time: This is a very personal list.
Take the Thai Restaurant on Greenmount Avenue, a place we often head for at the end of the week when everyone is just too tired to cook. If I didn't live fairly close, the Thai might never have made it on this list. On the other hand, maybe it would: I haven't found any Asian food in the area I like as well. Not because I prefer Thai cuisine to the others, but because the place is so reliable for the freshness of its ingredients, the delicacy of sauces (in spite of their fire) and the attention paid to the looks of each dish. I haven't tried everything on the menu, but I've never had a bad meal there. And I know I'm going to be perfectly happy with the Thai's beef satay with peanut sauce and cucumber salad, yellow curry with chicken and pad Thai (the traditional noodle and shrimp dish).
The Thai is one end of the spectrum. The other is the Important Occasion restaurant. For this I have two candidates, and in both cases the setting is every bit as important as the food.
It will come as no surprise that one of them is the Milton Inn in Sparks. I like the drive out to the country and the 250-year-old, ivy-covered fieldstone house at the end of the journey. The Colonial dining rooms, which were redone this summer, are serenely attractive.
The food can be spectacular. And even when it's not, the basic ingredients are so good and the concepts so imaginative you forgive the missteps. The menu changes with the seasons but there seem to be a few constants, like a first course built around a crisp corn-and-wild-rice waffle. It might be served with grilled duck breast, morels and dark cherries. Or smoked salmon with a swirl of creme fraiche.
Last winter I had a gorgeous tuna fillet, pan-fried with a crust of black and white sesame seeds and bathed with a mustard-tinged butter sauce. It was so appealing I ordered tuna again on my most recent visit. This time it was slightly overcooked; but I was so taken with the fresh fig cut into a flower on top, the suave bit of curried cream sauce and the couscous beneath, I couldn't bring myself to complain.
The Milton Inn's food is wonderfully imaginative, but it doesn't always succeed completely. When reliability is more important than imagination, I recommend the Prime Rib on North Calvert Street.
This is Baltimore's most glamorous restaurant, with black walls and gold trim, sensuous oil paintings, etched glass, plush carpeting, a glittering bar, candlelight and live music. The service is wonderful. Most places have forgotten that the customer is always right, but not the Prime Rib.
You come here when the atmosphere is just as important as the food. That's not to say that the food can't be superb -- it often is. But there are other places in the city to get a huge cut of beef and fried potato skins.
Actually, there's not another place to get prime rib this thick and meltingly tender, this juicy and flavorful. And the potato skins are still the best I've ever had.
Interestingly, when money is no object this is probably my favorite place to get seafood in town. You won't find a lot to choose from, but the rockfish is inexpressibly fresh and beautifully prepared, and I've never seen such large lumps of crab meat as the ones in the Prime Rib's crab bisque and crab imperial.