With New Chef, It's A More Polished Brass Elephant

DINING OUT

March 13, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

TC Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles St., (410) 547-8480. Major credit cards. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $4.25-$8.50; entrees, $15-$22. 1/2

The Brass Elephant may well be Baltimore's most beautiful restaurant; it's certainly the city's most civilized.

The high-ceilinged Edwardian rooms are quietly wonderful; at night they glitter (in a subdued sort of way) with crystal and gilt. An imposing hallway with dark paneling opens up into a front dining room that's cream and gold: tall gold-framed mirrors, a marble fireplace, crystal and brass chandeliers and sconces. The spacious tables are draped with white linen and handsomely set.

The two downstairs dining rooms have intricate parquet floors and spectacular woodwork. There's a Tiffany skylight above the stairs, which lead to an elegant bar and private dining rooms.

I've never had an out-and-out bad meal at the Brass Elephant, but I have felt lately that the food didn't quite live up to the setting. Now that's changed, with the arrival of Matthew Niessner.

Mr. Niessner, a graduate of the Baltimore Culinary Institute, is the Brass Elephant's new chef. He worked at the Brass Elephant while he was a student here, then moved to Arizona, where he ended up owning and running his own restaurant before returning to Baltimore.

I had heard that he planned to introduce Spanish and Southwestern flavors into the Brass Elephant's northern Italian menu; but if so, it hasn't happened yet. The main menu is much as I remember it, but the specials list the night we were there had some unusual, and very tempting selections -- not classically Italian, but conceived more along the lines of new American cuisine than I ever remember seeing from this basically conservative kitchen.

We ordered mostly from the specials, and had a spectacular meal, almost from start to finish.

A mesclun (mixed baby greens) salad with blood orange segments and warm brie rolled in almonds, dressed with a champagne vinaigrette, was as good as greenery gets.

The soup of the day, cauliflower, brie and mushroom veloute, was like liquid silk, whispering the flavors of its ingredients. Slivers of cauliflower and mushroom added delicate bits of texture.

If you're a shellfish lover, go when the oyster sampler is available. Fresh spinach and a lemony rich hollandaise graced ,, two of the big, plump oysters. Two were baked casino-style with butter, seductively seasoned bread crumbs and crisp morsels of bacon. Two were ornamented with chopped shrimp and a rich champagne sauce that managed not to overwhelm the good shellfish.

Equally fine was an emerald-green spinach cannelloni -- the delicately tender homemade pasta wrapped around shrimp and scallops, then bathed in a buttery bearnaise sauce.

The cannelloni was from the main menu, as were the sweetbreads, a classic preparation. The rounds of delicately pale meat fell apart at the touch of a fork. Fat little button mushrooms were a fine counterpoint, and all were bound together with a satiny sauce just tinged with Marsala. The sweetbreads were edged with a cloud of whipped potatoes.

For sheer interest, the grilled loin of lamb won hands down: There were rosy pink, full-flavored slices of excellent meat; just-tender slices of yellow pepper, zucchini and red onion; and a little mound of warm tabouli salad. The lamb juices were finished with a subtle touch of saffron and cinnamon. Formidable.

I had a mixed grill of tuna, scallops and shrimp, a stunning visual display because the seafood was arranged on fresh spinach with bright red blood orange sections and swirls of lemon yellow beurre blanc. The impeccably fresh seafood had a wonderful smoky flavor, which contrasted beautifully with the lightness of fresh citrus and the rich sauce.

But, alas, dinner at the Brass Elephant wasn't flawless. The spinach had been oversalted to the point where it couldn't be eaten. Literally.

What else didn't we like about our meal? Not much. The house salads were surprisingly ordinary compared to the rest of the meal, with grated carrots and winter tomatoes in with the good greens. But the excellent Caesar-like house dressing saved them.

An a la carte serving of braised red cabbage with apples, onions and pancetta just didn't work, but two other a la carte vegetables turned out to be spectacular: broccoli in cream tinged with red pepper and mustard, and baby asparagus with pancetta and hollandaise.

Because Mr. Niessner was the Brass Elephant's pastry chef when he worked here last, you'd think desserts would be the high point of the meal. Not so. The cheesecake was excellent, but a chocolate concoction had sat on the pastry cart a day or so longer than it should have, and the mound of chocolate-strawberry trifle was so unattractive I couldn't recommend it even though it tasted OK.

Still, with its polished service, beautiful setting and a new chef, the Brass Elephant is on its way to becoming one of Baltimore's most important restaurants. All the food needs is a bit of tweaking here and there for this to be a four-star establishment.

Next: The Fishery

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