Pretty Room, Good Food, But A Bargain?

DINING OUT

August 07, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Pavilion at the Walters, Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St., (410) 727-2233. Open Tuesdays to Sundays for lunch, Thursdays and Fridays for dinner, Sundays for brunch. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Prices: appetizers, $3.50-$5.50, entrees, $8.95-$16.95. ***

Up until now I've felt that the Pavilion at the Walters was one of the city's most underrated restaurants -- at least for dinner. A high-profile site for elegant lunches, the Pavilion has always been empty when I've eaten there at night.

Now, however, the museum's restaurant has gotten national recognition. Not for the architecturally splendid setting. Not so much for the food, most of which is inventive and much of which is very good. But for being one of the best bargains in the area.

According to a recent Zagat survey, large numbers of local people voted the Pavilion one of Baltimore's 24 "best meal deals," along with places like Attman's Deli and the Woman's Industrial Exchange. In fact, the Pavilion was among the top-five bargain restaurants in Baltimore.

This distinction amazes me. Although the Pavilion has many virtues, you pay for them.

Maybe things have changed, I thought to myself. I knew that chef Mark Hofmann, who was responsible for the Pavilion's food when it opened three years ago, had left. And I knew changes had been planned to the menu. I had been meaning to return, and this survey gave me the excuse I needed.

But my heart sank as I stood at the top of the grand entry stairway and surveyed the dining room. It was as spectacular as ever -- an airy, open space two stories high, the classically inspired architecture dominated by a fountain and a bronze sculpture of a boy feeding grapes to a panther cub. Every table was beautifully appointed. And every table was empty.

This is not a good sign in a restaurant. Not at 7:30 on a Thursday night. You wonder how Zagat ever came up with a large number of people who had even heard of the Pavilion, let alone were competent to judge it as a good deal.

We ate in lonely splendor that evening. (Two other people did come in during the couple of hours we were there.) My fears were groundless: We had a fine meal. But at about $30 a person, it would have been stretching things to call it a bargain.

The dinner menu seems much the same as it was previously -- in spirit if not in actual content. Rumor had it that the Pavilion would be emphasizing healthier fare, but that doesn't seem to have happened. There are a few more dishes on the menu than I remember, and they are, perhaps, a bit more exotic -- with influences from the Mediterranean and Asia.

But it seems to me that the lobster and corn chowder has been on the menu since the beginning. As well it should have been, with its smooth, sensuous creaminess, luscious pieces of lobster and golden flecks of corn. And the Pavilion has long been known for its seared tuna (which I didn't order this time but which has always been wonderful).

You can begin with four Thai dim sum, the fried won-ton wrappers stuffed with a spicy chopped shrimp mixture and arranged on a bed of matchstick vegetables with an intriguingly sweet sauce. Good, but even better was a wedge of soft, warm brie cheese with slivers of grilled red pepper and -- oh, joy -- fresh, ripe pineapple and mango, grilled so they were still warm.

Fresh fruits and interesting fresh vegetables were woven throughout our meal -- one of the real pluses of our dinner. Two loin lamb chops and herbed couscous were good, but the grilled peppers, eggplant, zucchini and fennel on the same plate were so appealing they overshadowed what they accompanied. Shrimp Moroccan Style was spicier than I would season it, but the combination of peppers, currants, sugar snap peas, carrots and fresh pineapple more than made up for it. The best of our main courses was one fine broiled crab cake, mostly back fin, on a bed of fettuccine with brilliant green sugar snap peas and roasted red peppers.

The dessert menu has such delights as a split of champagne with chocolates and strawberries, and a "chef's extravaganza" of the day. I recommend a cappuccino served with a raisin biscotti for something light, or an incredible chocolate macadamia nut brownie for a total pig-out.

I stopped by the next day to see if the Pavilion's lunch was the bargain meal. Certainly business was better, and I was interested to see that the lunch menu had become more egalitarian (with more, and more conventional, sandwiches) and slightly less expensive. Still, it's hard to see how you could get out for much under $10 or $15 a person.

The food didn't quite live up to dinner the night before, although a salad nicoise made with seared rare tuna, baby green beans, Euromix lettuces, new potatoes and capers came close. But the cheeses on a fruit and cheese plate were pretty uninteresting, while ravioli with wild mushrooms were drowning in their cream sauce. Calamari with honey mustard and Thai dipping sauce needed to be fried a bit longer.

When you consider you're eating in one of Baltimore's most appealing dining rooms, such minor complaints hardly seem to matter. But I came away still puzzled as to why the restaurant would be voted one of Baltimore's top-five bargains, and I still can't figure out why business isn't better.

! Next: Loco Hombre

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