Good Food, Nice Staff, Slack Service By Elizabeth Large

DINING OUT

June 04, 1995

Berry & Elliot's, Hyatt Regency Hotel, 300 Light St., (410) 528-1234. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $7.50-$8.50; entrees, $17.50-$25.50. ***

I live and work in a city where at least two of our hotel dining rooms (Hampton's and Citronelle) are also among our best luxury restaurants, so I don't think much of the conventional wisdom that hotel food is competent but dull because the audience is captive.

I was looking forward to eating at Berry & Elliot's, the Hyatt Regency's rooftop restaurant -- the first time I'd been there in several years. The harbor view is as spectacular as any in Baltimore, and I'd heard the food and service are much improved.

Things have improved. We didn't have to wait one hour for our first courses, as we did last time. (That had been just the beginning of our woes.) But service was still the major issue on this latest visit, so I'll start with it, not the food.

What was odd this time was that everyone was extraordinarily nice, and we still didn't get as good service as we should have for our $166 before tip.

The hostess gave us a great table -- or what I thought was a great table. In retrospect, it was probably out of the way and that was why we were forgotten.

The waiter and busboys were so friendly, so polished and so sympathetic when we finally complained loudly about being ignored that I hate to snitch on them. True, it may have been the kitchen's fault that we waited a long time for our food. But we also had to wave frantically to get a glimpse of the dessert tray, never got offered a second cup of coffee and didn't get the check until we put on our coats.

At first we didn't mind that the meal was a long time coming because this is such a pleasant place to be. The dining room, decorated in gray, maroon and cream, is a serene backdrop for the star of the show, the spectacular view of the harbor and points south. The decor is contemporary and very comfortable, with well-spaced tables on two levels.

Berry & Elliot's menu is quite short, with just nine entrees; but our waiter astounded us by saying if we wanted something else, just to ask. I was tempted to see how responsive the kitchen could be, but I restrained myself.

Instead we ordered straight from the menu -- except for one of the specials that night, salmon over spinach penne.

A reader who had out-of-town guests staying at the Hyatt called as I was writing this. Where would I recommend going for seafood? Because we had had that salmon and the swordfish from the menu I told her to try Berry & Elliot's.

The salmon, fresh and cooked perfectly, was moist and flavorful. was on top of more pasta than one person could eat, tossed with slender asparagus spears and slivers of leek.

Even better was a huge chunk of swordfish -- as thick as a big steak. Its size and its sesame seed crust kept the white, flaky fish from being the least dry. It came on a bed of tart-sweet red onion and pineapple relish. On the side were fine, herb-scented roast potatoes and a mix of fresh vegetables.

You can also get a gorgeous New York strip steak, seared outside, beautifully pink inside with all the flavor of well-aged beef. With it come homey mashed potatoes, raised to new heights with the addition of shallots and Parmesan cheese.

When all our other main courses had been handled so well, it was hard to understand why a combination of grilled chicken and shrimp had been grievously overcooked. Even tossed with roasted sweet peppers and plum tomatoes, they tasted dry. Too bad, the combination with triangles of polenta would have been appealing.

I mention our main courses first because our first courses weren't quite so noteworthy. I was brought cream of crab soup instead of the carpaccio I had ordered. When the waiter realized his mistake, he left the soup, so I ended up getting to try both. The soup had gorgeous lumps of crab meat but was thicker than I like and arrived lukewarm. The soup we had ordered -- shrimp, tomato, spinach and artichoke -- had a great flavor but was lukewarm as well.

A salad of sliced pears, grilled and arranged around mixed greens dressed with a vinaigrette and crumbled blue cheese, was pleasant enough but not as memorable as some of our meal. Good fried calamari was made quite chic with the addition of fennel and aioli (a sort of garlicky mayonnaise).

I had been intrigued by the carpaccio because of the description: "blackened carpaccio of beef." It sounds like an oxymoron -- if it's blackened then it's not raw beef, is it? But Berry & Elliot's does manage to have it both ways. The meat is barely seared with Cajun spices, so you get the flavor, but the translucent slices are still essentially raw.

Desserts come from an Irish bakery in Columbia, according to our waiter, and there are no surprises here. Yes, there's the three chocolate mousse cake, and the flourless chocolate cake that tastes like solid fudge. (Unfortunately it was a bit dry.) I preferred both the handsome apple crumb pie, served warm with ice cream, and a dainty fresh pear tart.

I'm giving the Hyatt the benefit of the doubt because the food was good and the staff so nice. Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I'm thinking maybe Berry & Elliot's was short-staffed that night for some reason, and that slow service isn't the norm. Hence the three stars.

Next: Morgan Millard

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