California Dreaming In A Baltimore Hotel


September 04, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Sausalito, Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel, 20 West Baltimore Street, (410) 539-8400. Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No smoking area: yes. **1/2 $$$

Here I was, about to spend large amounts of The Sun's money on dinner for myself and my guests, and I found myself wondering if I was in the right restaurant. This is not a comfortable position for anyone, let alone a food critic, to be in.

Where I thought I was going to be eating was the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore's newly refurbished "fine" dining room, now named Sausalito. "Nouvelle California cuisine," I was told when I called to do a little scouting.

The only sign anywhere near the dining room, however, was a discreet brass plaque engraved with the word "Maestro's," the name of the Lord Baltimore restaurant that closed in 1990. The low-ceilinged dining room, while pleasant, looked about as nouvelle California as my dining room, last redecorated 25 years ago.

Where were the sunlit colors; the clean, contemporary lines; the lush plants? Where were the windows? Would a restaurant called Sausalito have maroon tablecloths, artificial flowers and French chairs?

The five of us walked in with no reservations and were seated at a table for seven. (The extra place settings were never removed.) On the one hand, the table had a tablecloth and ornate china and silver. On the other, it was set with paper napkins (also maroon), coffee mugs as well as wine glasses, and jams and jellies for breakfast. Was this going to be fine dining or not? My guess was not . . . but on yet another hand, when we ordered wine by the glass, the waiter opened the bottle at our table with a flourish. No jug wine here, at least.

I opened the menu. Nowhere was the restaurant named. Could this be Aubergine or the Peacock Cafe, the hotel's other two new eating places?

But when I started to read it, I knew we were OK. Right away I noticed the grilled swordfish medallions with macadamia nuts and fresh pineapple salsa. Perfect: Pacific Rim with a touch of Southwest. (Not that I could get anyone actually to order the combination.)

What we had here, it turned out, was a pleasant but rather ordinary hotel dining room with pleasant but somewhat haphazard service and surprisingly imaginative food.

It's not all macadamia nuts and pineapple salsa. (OK, OK, I

shouldn't knock it if I haven't tried it.) Something as simple as a nicely grilled New York strip steak was enhanced with a pretty arrangement of oyster mushrooms and a zingy ancho chili sauce on the side.

A mixed grill of large shrimp, swordfish and salmon fillet on a bed of fresh tomato and fennel embodied what's best about California cooking: the freshest of seafood paired with flavorful vegetables. Stick with these dishes and you won't go wrong; where the kitchen got a bit off track was with some of the details of our other dishes.

Sausalito has some spa cuisine, such as braised salmon with rosemary and warm savoy cabbage salad, with the calorie content listed next to them. No calorie content is listed next to the paillarde of chicken, though. Delicate medallions of chicken breast were layered between triangles of crisp puff pastry, then bathed in a cream sauce flavored with zinfandel (which, unfortunately, turned it an odd shade of lavender). Vegetables included baby asparagus, steamed just long enough, a few tender carrot slices, and a swirl of duchess potatoes that were a bit overcooked.

Dinners come with a house salad, perfectly respectable except that it featured wedges of hothouse tomato in the middle of summer. Ranch dressing made with sour cream was not a success. We ordered an a la carte "signature" salad with citrus vinaigrette, a dressing the waiter insisted on bringing on the side. I understood why when I tasted it -- the orange and grapefruit juices weren't tart enough to balance the olive oil.

First courses are limited, but you might have marinated roasted red and yellow peppers or seared tenderloin of beef with horseradish sauce. (The latter would have been even better if it had been served very rare.) Both are good, both are garnished and fussed with to the point of overkill, with sprouts, radicchio, tapenade, tomatoes, onions and so on. A cold carrot and ginger soup with hints of citrus was more exotic but less appealing than the luscious cream of crab.

Sausalito's desserts ran to the typical hotel pastry tray offerings on our visit -- mostly pretty layered cakes in various flavors. Only the lemon tort stands out in my memory. Other successful choices were warm, rich pecan pie and a flavorful apple pie with a flaky pastry.

On our way out, we walked through the hotel's newly redone lobby. It's a knockout, and it has great palms. I'd like to see the hotel move a few of them down to the restaurant below.

Next: Antrim

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