Hampton's, Harbor Court Hotel, 550 Light St., (410) 234-0550. Open Tuesdays to Sundays for dinner, Sundays for brunch. Major credit cards. Appetizers: $9-$13; entrees: $20-$32. *** The life of a food critic isn't quite as glamorous as it may seem. For every four-star restaurant, there are 10 mediocre ones that have to be visited. But every once in a while fate smiles on us.
For instance, the award-winning chef of one of Baltimore's best restaurants leaves and his sous-chef takes over the kitchen. I not only get to visit his new venture, I must, of course, see how his successor is doing at what is perhaps the city's premier special-occasion establishment.
The restaurant is Hampton's at Harbor Court. The new (as of July 1) executive chef is Holly Forbes, who replaced Michael Rork, who earlier this summer opened the Town Dock in St. Michaels. The prices at Hampton's are so high they have to write them out in words on the menu, as in "Tomato, Red Pepper, Black Olive Tart . . . Twenty Dollars."
But that, I promise, is the only dig I'll take at the cost of eating dinner at Hampton's. If you have that kind of money (my guess is about $50 per person before taxes and tip), you'll get good value for what you spend. I'm not talking so much about wonderful food -- some of it is, some of it isn't -- as the total experience.
From the moment you walk in, you will be swathed in luxury. The dining room is hushed, at least on a weeknight evening when it's half empty. But even at its most crowded, the tables are spaced so far from each other that it's still a relaxed experience.
The dining room is a bit, well, salmon-colored for my taste, with pinkish walls, armchairs and draperies; a salmon-and-white flowery carpet; pink-marbled Villeroy & Boch china. But it works. Flowers are everywhere: huge, gorgeous arrangements on the antique sideboard; flowers in the dim oil paintings with gold frames; an orchid decorating your first course; a single gardenia floating in glass on each table. In fact, the whole dining room is like a gardenia -- lush, sensual, a bit overpowering.
Add to this absolutely superb service. It's a delicate balance: You want your every wish to be anticipated, you want to be pampered, but you don't want the service to intrude. I, at least, don't want a friend. I want a waiter.
I don't want conversation. I want whatever I don't eat whisked away, and I don't want to talk about it. I want my glass filled constantly without my ever noticing. I want to feel like I'd like to sit there forever, and they'd like me to sit there forever.
All this Hampton's delivers.
The next time, I'd try the three-course prix-fixe menu ($49), which includes a pre-selected wine for each course. (This evening the menu was spiced ahi carpaccio, pan-seared loin of lamb and a peach poached in champagne.)
But that would mean I'd miss the sensational "smoked fish duo," trout and salmon with just an edge of salty-smokiness. There was a bit of caviar, toast points made from really good bread, and a lovely bit of salad whose vinegary tang was the perfect counterpoint to the fish. Wow.
A wildly extravagant starter of three oysters on the half shell baked with huge lumps of crab, a little bacon and a mousseline sauce (hollandaise with whipped cream) was elaborately presented in the folds of a napkin and decorated with an orchid and herbs. Not so subtle as the smoked fish, but if caloric luxury is what you're looking for . . .
Only a wild mushroom crepe disappointed. Nothing was wrong with the sauteed mushrooms and heavy cream in an herb-flecked crepe. It simply wasn't very interesting.
I remembered longingly the salad that accompanied the smoked fish when I tasted Hampton's Caesar salad. The romaine lettuce was beautifully fresh and crisp, but when you cover it thickly with dressing (even very good dressing), and lay large anchovy fillets on top, and serve it with cubes of fried eggplant instead of croutons (even very good fried eggplant) -- well, the lettuce gets a little lost.
Hampton's offers a basic menu and a menu that changes weekly. There was also one special that evening. The waiter called it a "loose lasagna" -- shellfish and fish in a saffron sauce layered (but not baked) with a few tender egg noodles. The seafood was wonderfully fresh and perfectly cooked, and I liked the light saffron sauce with fresh tomatoes and a few jewel-green sugar snap peas. It was a sort of bouillabaisse with lasagna noodles.
Hampton's may be the only restaurant in town that serves buffalo (Cajun-style) and wild boar. Unfortunately, the white slices of boar were tasteless and a bit dry; they made you long for pork loin. And the sauce was the kitchen's only serious misstep: a combination of cinnamon apples and sliced hazelnuts that was sticky sweet. (Great little potatoes, though.)
Things got back on track with boneless duck around a stuffing made of game birds. It was an intriguing interplay of flavors; and its dark, fruit-scented sauce didn't overwhelm it.
I was perfectly happy finishing with strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in a delicate creme anglaise. Neither of my friends' more extravagant offerings appealed. A chocolate "tulip" was too thick to cut with a fork. It was filled with an incredibly rich praline mousse; berries and two different sauces were simply overkill. The other dessert was a pear baked in a tough, undercooked pastry with an unexciting caramel sauce.
The experience as a whole was so overwhelmingly positive that I don't want to end on a negative note. Dinner included various little extras: a salmon mousse to begin, a delicate lemon sorbet between courses and tiny chocolate cups filled with peanut butter mousse with the check. The wine list, as you might expect, is excellent, and there's a fine selection of wines by the glass.
& Next: Captain Harvey's