A Generally Fine Feast Soured By Slack Service

DINING OUT

November 27, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Windows, Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, 202 E. Pratt St., (410) 547-1200. Open Mondays to Fridays for breakfast, lunch and dinner; Saturdays and Sundays for breakfast, brunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Appetizers, $3.75- $6.95; entrees, $$8.95-$21. **

I was, I have to admit, a little worried. I called Windows to make reservations, and I was put on hold. After 10 minutes I got tired of listening to the semiclassical music and hung up. No one sounded any happier to hear from me when I called back, but at least someone took my reservation for five people in no-smoking.

I felt a little more worried when we got to Stouffer's luxe dining room and found our reservation had been put down for two people. Luckily the multi-level restaurant was half empty, so the hostess could seat us at a lovely table with a panoramic view of the harbor. Halfway through our meal I realized it wasn't as lovely as I thought: We were as close to a table of smokers as we could be without actually sitting in their laps. Our table was right at the dividing line between smoking and nonsmoking.

This is a striking restaurant -- impersonal, as large hotel dining rooms tend to be, but soothing with its peaches and cream colors, and very comfortable. The menu is imaginative, well-thought-out and appealing. All of which makes the service, or lack of it, particularly unfortunate.

It's service with an attitude, which I can live with and even be amused by up to a point. When, for instance, we wouldn't be talked out of having the duck the way the chef recommended, medium rare, our waitress said, "I'm not bringing it out all bloody now and have you wanting me to take it back."

What I can't stand is to be neglected once the food is on the table. I like to be asked if we want more than one drink, if we want coffee or dessert or even our check. I don't want to have to get the busboy to find the waitress for us.

A more subtle problem was the fact that no one waiting on us seemed trained in formal service. If someone wasn't reaching over us to clear away plates and stacking them up one on top of the other, then someone else was sticking her elbow in our face as she poured the coffee. Or squeezing behind one of us when he could have taken a few more steps and gone the other way round. And I hate sitting for long periods of time with dirty dishes in front of me when I'm spending this kind of money on a meal.

It's too bad, because if you're fuming about the service you can't appreciate good food. And some of it was very good.

As I said before, it's an imaginative menu, with a number of less expensive, lighter items like a Thai shrimp salad on field greens. (To balance them, there was a "daily selection" of an Oktoberfest smoked pork, bratwurst, krakauer -- smoked pork with black pepper -- and sauerkraut served with parsley potatoes and a bottle of Beck's Oktoberfest beer!)

A sweet potato soup with a few cinnamon croutons was a lovely golden puree, smooth as silk and full of flavor. It arrived at the table lukewarm, but I bet that wasn't the kitchen's fault.

There was a delicious carpaccio, the razor-thin slices of high-quality raw beef teamed with strips of seeded tomato in a red chili oil. There was an intriguing salad of chilled marinated mushrooms with fennel and chevre. And there was a beautiful stir-fry of watercress and jicama with three seared scallops (too much butter sauce, though).

The aforementioned duck arrived not bloody but nicely pink, and therefore not dried out at all, with an engaging sauce of sun-dried cherries. On the side was an autumnal medley of sauteed mushrooms, sweet potato wedges and the babiest green beans imaginable.

Swordfish was fresh and grilled to juicy perfection, then sauced with a sharp balsamic vinaigrette. Sauteed yellow squash and zucchini and roasted potato wedges were its appealing accompaniment.

Two dishes tempered my enthusiasm. One, penne arrabbiatta, was too much of everything: too salty with large pieces of sun-dried tomato, too much of various dried herbs, too much chili. And not enough of the tiny chicken dice. The other was a flank steak in a winy sauce that simply tasted off -- a first for me in a decent restaurant, at least with beef.

We ordered coffee and then sat there 10 minutes with the empty cups in front of us waiting for a new pot to be brewed. I don't know about you, but if I managed a restaurant, I'd have coffee brewing constantly during peak dinner hours. It was good when it came, but it would have had to be the nectar of the gods to be worth that wait.

Windows has a stylish dessert menu, with such temptations as a chocolate chocolate mousse cake (it had been fresher the day before); black cherry and chocolate chip ice cream in an almond tuile cookie shell, my favorite of our choices; an individual peach pie with too much streusel topping for my taste; and a pretty but tasteless fruit tart.

By this time we hardly cared, we were so anxious to get out of there. But there was one final blow to come: The mints we got on the way out were stale.

Next: Donna's at the BMA

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