The 50 best restaurants in the area: You'd think it would be pretty easy to pick them, wouldn't you?
Our informal panel of critics, food editors, writers and serious eaters started working on a master list; we ended up with about 80 restaurants. When our reviewers had visited all of them, we began whittling down the list -- and that was when we ran into trouble.
It was no surprise to find that people were passionate about their favorite restaurants. Some felt we should be judging on the quality of the food alone. Others thought we should take into account a food-price ratio; others the great or not-so-great atmosphere; still others the nostalgia factor.
How do you compare and rate against each other eating places as different, say, as Citronelle and Louie's Bookstore Cafe?
We gave up the idea of ranking our 50 best. We felt proud we had actually come up with 50 restaurants we all thought should be on the list, a list that took into account food, atmosphere, price and service.
One thing we can count on, though: You, our readers, probably won't agree.
We know we've left out one (or more) of your all-time favorites.
We know you had a terrible experience at one of our favorites.
All we can do is hope you'll let us know about your undiscovered gem for our next Dining Out.
And now, the 50 best:
Ambassador, 3811 Canterbury Rd., (410) 467-4799. $$1/2
The Ambassador is a paradox: one of Baltimore's grand old apartment house dining rooms that serves som e of the trendiest food around. The setting is comfortable and genteel, the service good, and most of the regulars are no longer as young as they used to be. But that last is changing, as people discover the kitchen can turn out dishes like a twin grill of fresh, beautifully cooked rockfish and mahi-mahi with autumn vegetables, basmati rice and a lemon bordelaise sauce. Fried shrimp and pork chop dinners are still on the menu, as they have been for time immemorial. But you can also get pepper-crusted beef with roasted red peppers and artichokes, or deliciously garlicky seared scallops over wilted spinach with crisply fried snippets of onion.
Details matter here: really good bread, a variety of excellent vegetables (we had fresh asparagus and roast sweet potatoes), fresh herbs for garnish. When it's time for dessert, the Ambassador has chic little pastries, but it also goes back to its roots and turns out old-time favorites like bread pudding and custard.
Bangkok Oriental, 8043 Ritchie Hwy., Pasadena, (410) 766-0973. $$
Shopping-center restaurants abound on Ritchie Highway, but this one offers surprises that its humble location belies. Pale rose tablecloths, fresh flowers and commendable Thai selections make visitors forget they are in a storefront dining room.
Tender beef satay with peanut sauce and two perfect spring rolls were good beginnings. Our waiter politely positioned these dishes -- and others -- so they could be easily shared.
On his recommendation, we ordered pad Thai and a starred spicy entree, fresh basil and chili chicken. He wasn't wrong when he said it was very hot. But as much as I loved the mix of flavors in the chicken dish, my sister and I agreed the stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp were heavenly.
It's always embarrassing to order dessert after asking for doggie bags, but we were glad we did. The chocolate torte was pleasing, and the caramel custard of coconut cream was a wedge of soothing coolness.
Boccaccio, 925 Eastern Ave., (410) 234-1322. $$$
Boccaccio the writer lived in 14th-century Florence, Italy. Boccaccio the restaurant is in Baltimore's touristy Little Italy. Fortunately, the restaurant doesn't serve tourist food, but the real thing. It's doing it right. The lighting: muted and golden. Sounds: civilized voices. Our waiter: restrained, only a little aloof, knowledgeable. Clientele: well-dressed, deep-pocketed. We three liked the urbane manners, the silken atmosphere and food that was well above routine.
Shrimp were fresh-tasting, firm and juicy. Fried squid were beautifully light and crisp. Like chicken breasts generally, ours were ho-hum, but we loved the kitchen's good green beans and buttery spinach. Twenty-six dollars for veal scallops with wild mushrooms made us gasp, but yes, we were charmed by the veal and the mushrooms, as well as by the mushrooms on a plate of delicious grouper. The menu had its oddities -- no ravioli, no cappelletti, no striking desserts. Tiramisu was perfunctory, profiteroles were served with more chocolate sauce and whipped cream than I prefer, but we gobbled them both up.
Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles St., (410) 547-8480. $$$$
It is always a treat to sit down for a meal in one of the elegant dining rooms at the Brass Elephant. With its high ceilings, elaborate wood tracery and candlelit tables, this converted townhouse on Charles Street is one of Baltimore's most romantic restaurants.