Lots To Like On New, No-frills Menu

DINING OUT

December 19, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Because of incorrect information supplied by a photographer, the name of the dish featured in the Dining Out photo in today's Sun Magazine is incorrect. The dish is beef carpaccio.

The Sun regrets the error.

Peabody Grill, Latham Hotel, 612 Cathedral St., (410) 727-7101. Major credit cards. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$8.25; entrees, $10.95-$21.95.

Well, here I am again. Sitting down to a meal at Peabody's because its menu has changed drastically. I've reviewed this potentially wonderful but usually erratic little restaurant so many times over the years, you'd think the staff would recognize me from the moment I walk in the door.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

But no -- not only don't they recognize me, they've lost our reservation and aren't sure they can even seat us. The maitre d' considers, decides there is a table. Unfortunately, it's in the smoking section.

We sit down and wait. After awhile, our waiter comes up to explain he'll be with us in a minute but he's been so busy, he says, "I have to regroup." We wait patiently because, hey, we were lucky to get a table without a reservation.

We have plenty of time to look around and consider the changes made since the Peabody Court became the Latham Hotel and Michel Richard, who oversees the restaurants, revamped Peabody's menu. This was always one of the best-looking casual dining rooms in the city, and the hotel's new management has wisely kept much of it intact: the marble-topped tables, comfortable seating, mahogany paneling, elegant appointments. But in honor of Mr. Richard, who hails from Los Angeles, it now has a faint Southern California veneer. The walls have been freshly painted off-white and the windows are bare; with these two simple changes the room's fin-de-siecle atmosphere has disappeared.

Other hotels have coffee shops. The Latham has Peabody's, where you can get carpaccio and calf's liver with onion garlic confit and nine different wines by the glass. Still, this is simple food compared to what Citronelle upstairs serves. There are a few main courses, several pastas, some sandwiches and salads.

I like the changes in Peabody's menu very much. Most of the dishes are no-frills. A bowl of corn chowder is just that, cream and corn that tastes sweetly of summer. Vegetable soup is no more or less than vegetable soup, but the vegetables still have some life of their own and the full-bodied broth is well-seasoned. A Caesar salad holds no surprises, but we don't want any. The romaine is crisp and pale green, with a creamy dressing just garlicky enough, a few plump anchovies and good croutons. The shrimp in the shrimp cocktail are fat, fresh and pink, well-cleaned and served with a zingy cocktail sauce.

But my favorite of our starters is the carpaccio, razor-thin slices of raw beef with a swirl of ginger-flavored cream and, at its center, chopped mushrooms and onion. With all of these good things comes a warm, crisp-crusted little loaf of multigrain bread.

Very little of Citronelle has filtered downstairs, but occasionally we're reminded of Michel Richard's signature dishes. He's known, for instance, for coating seafood in shredded kadafi pastry and deep-frying it. Our plump little crab cake starter, warm and soft and full of back fin, has that same sort of extra crunchy exterior. It works beautifully, but the special of the evening, flounder in an Anaheim chili sauce, doesn't. The pieces of flounder taste straight from the sea, but with their spiky, crunchy coating they remind me of the Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks of my childhood. OK, it's Anaheim chili sauce. It still tastes like the ketchup I used to eat my fish sticks with.

But sometimes the kitchen outdoes itself. Calf's liver with onion garlic confit is thin, tender, just pink and so delicate no one tasting it could disapprove of liver. Its brown sauce is full-bodied and luscious, and slices of perfectly cooked bacon offer a crisp counterpoint to the tender meat. Lamb steak is less surprising, but the thin steak is pink and full of flavor, a pool of faintly sweet, winy sauce underneath it. A golden square of creamy potatoes gratin is nothing short of spectacular.

Even Peabody's missteps show promise. Steamed baby vegetables are gorgeously fresh, including the peas -- jewel bright in color and perfectly cooked. Alas, they've been oversalted. Bow-tie pasta with broccoli has a heavy cream sludge of a sauce, but the flavor is wonderful and the broccoli beautifully cooked. Only the creamed spinach, with big pieces of onion in it, has nothing to recommend it.

When we get to dessert, the kitchen hasn't made creme Carmel (named for Carmel Valley?) or the raspberry chocolate cake, and there's no ice cream. But our waiter has unexpectedly found one last lemon meringue tart. It has a shortbread crust, as delicate as it is buttery rich. It has a tart-sweet lemon filling and a cloud of meringue on top. Best of all, it sits jewel-like on a pool of velvet custard swirled with raspberry.

The less-fortunate diners at our table have to settle for a classic version of densely chocolate mousse with a swirl of whipped cream, or a rich bread pudding -- neither of which is exactly a hardship.

This may be heresy, but we've actually had a more satisfying meal for the money than we did at Citronelle. Too bad it isn't presented with the same suavity and professionalism as dinner upstairs, where the service was just about perfect and, yes, they remembered our reservation.

Next: Palermo's

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