It's Back To Beginning For Towson Restaurant

DINING OUT

March 26, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Hampton's of Towson, 204 E. Joppa Road, Towson, (410) 821-8888. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.95-$8.50; entrees, $10.95-$25.95.

No, it's not that Hampton's. It's not the luxe, special-occasion restaurant located in the Harbor Court Hotel. With any other place you might think the owners were trying to suggest that their restaurant is a branch of the downtown Hampton's. But this is such a nice, low-key place, you know that's not true.

Located in the Hampton House apartment building, the dining room was Dici Naz Velleggia's for more than 20 years, and then Enrico's for less than a year. Local restaurateur Bill Sullivan then became one of the new owners -- the Bill Sullivan who's made a success of Patrick's in Cockeysville, the Bowman in Carney, and River Watch in Essex. He should know what he's doing.

What he's done is change the menu from Italian to part American, part Continental. What he hasn't done is change the feel of the place. The service is excellent, friendly but not familiar; that was true of all of the staff -- the hostess, the busboy, our attentive waiter.

The large dining room with its low drop ceiling isn't particularly memorable, but it is mildly attractive. The muted color scheme relaxes, the chairs are comfortable. Tables set with white napery, candle lamps and fresh flowers give the space a polished air. And there's a fine view from the windows that run around three sides of the dining room. Live music flows in from the bar area.

Most strikingly, the restaurant has gone back to its roots. Remember the apartment house dining rooms of a bygone era -- where the menus always had plenty of choices for residents who had come down for dinner and didn't want to spend an arm and a leg? Well, that's what Hampton's reminds me of. The new restaurant has early-bird dinners for $10.95, specials like Wednesday's shrimp night for $14.95 and -- my favorite -- "petite portions" of many of the entrees for a lower price. Do you really need a pound of beef on your plate, much of which goes home in a doggie bag? If not, you'll like this feature.

Hampton's ends up being Towson's version of a moderately priced neighborhood restaurant disguised as a special-occasion place. You can get rack of lamb here, but you can also get what the restaurant calls "Price Buster Specials," like Shrimp Night on Wednesdays.

We had both. Shrimp Night involved choosing from shrimp Oriental, shrimp garlic or shrimp wrapped in bacon for a first course and shrimp grilled, fried, stuffed or scampi-ed for an entree. You also get vegetables and salad. One of my guests started with five fat shrimp steamed in foil with an appealing teriyaki sauce. They were followed by four shrimp stuffed with lump crab meat in a rich imperial sauce. On the side were rice and fresh asparagus Polonaise with bread crumbs and chopped egg.

Hampton's rack of lamb was cut into eight pretty little chops, cooked pink as ordered. But the lamb wasn't so fabulous that it wouldn't have benefited from a bit of sauce or the smoky flavor of grilling. I liked its bed of couscous studded with minced vegetables very much, but the lamb just needed something more.

Before the lamb came a cup of the soup of the day, a seafood bisque. I wasn't wild about the bisque itself -- it was long on starch and short on flavor -- but I was impressed by the amount of seafood it held, including lump crab and three shrimp.

The kitchen has the unfortunate habit of adding melon to dishes where you wouldn't expect it. The good house salad, for instance, had both pickled peppers and chunks of cantaloupe. Odd. And cantaloupe and honeydew seemed a strange garnish for another first course, the excellent baked oysters Christopher, nestled in their shells with sliced almonds, a curl of bacon and butter flavored with tarragon.

Oysters made an appearance again in veal Chesapeake. The pale, delicate scaloppine were so good they could hold their own with oysters, fresh spinach and a sauce that was mostly butter and cream. This is one of those dishes that offer petite portions. My guess is that half the amount of veal, oysters, spinach and rich sauce for $5 less would be fine.

Hampton's has a pastry tray of desserts baked in house -- a lush cheesecake rippled with chocolate if you're feeling wanton; a spongecake, whipped cream and strawberry concoction if you're feeling merely naughty. I particularly liked an apple cake with a bit of caramel sauce, but would have liked it even better if it had been served warm.

All in all, a very pleasant evening. And the check at the end of it wasn't so large as we expected, because one of us had ordered the Shrimp Night dinner. Hampton's of Towson isn't particularly exciting. It isn't breaking any culinary ground. But it is reliable, comfortable and run by nice folks. And, if you stick to the specials, it can even be a bargain.

Next: Pier 500

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