You know just what you like when you eat at one of the top restaurants in the Baltimore area. You have your favorites and you stick with them. But wait, what's that delicious-looking entree the guy at the next table is eating? And how about that gorgeous mile-high cake that's being wheeled by on the dessert cart? What's that all about?
We thought it might be fun to find out just what Baltimore diners are ordering when they go out to eat -- to help us all expand our dining repertoire. And after talking to executive chefs, chefs, sous-chefs, owners, managers and maitre d's at a number of places around town and just beyond, we think we have the skinny on favorite foods at some of the favorite restaurants in the Baltimore area.
Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles St., (410) 547-8480: Ask owner/executive chef Randy Stahl what the popular dishes are at this elegant restaurant, and he is quick to reply, "Fresh fish." One item that scores high points with customers is salmon paillard -- a thin fillet grilled and served with wilted greens and raspberry sauce. Seafood cioppino, a braised seafood stew, has been on the menu for 12 years. Don't expect to glimpse a large pot simmering on the stove, though. "We make it to order for each customer," says Mr. Stahl. Sometimes the broth is red; sometimes white. Either way, it is crammed full of mussels, sea scallops from Nantucket, Gulf shrimp, baby clams, calamari and fish, all stewing away with fresh herbs, garlic and olive oil. If you aren't feeling fishy, try veal portofino with shallots and sliced shiitake mushrooms.
Citronelle, the Latham Hotel, 612 Cathedral St., (410) 837-3150: The crispy crab cake appetizer is a blue-ribbon winner at this handsome city restaurant perched 13 floors above the streets of Baltimore. Smoked salmon terrine -- 40 layers of paper-thin salmon alternated with a mixture of salmon mousse and flying fish roe -- is also tops with diners. "We are French with a California twist," explains manager Patrick Priest. "Everything is crunchy and light." Diners love the peppered tuna steak -- seared and served rare. "It's heart-healthy, low in cholesterol, and has a great flavor," says Mr. Priest. The star dessert is a crunchy napoleon made with delicate pastry and vanilla creme brulee, and topped with homemade butterscotch sauce.
Due, 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, (410) 356-4147: Although Due's menu changes with the seasons, owner/chef Linwood Dame says customers rave over pizzas pulled piping hot from the restaurant's wood-burning oven. Pizza scampi -- shrimp with Romano, Asiago and fontina cheeses -- is the big hit. Also drawing kudos is executive chef Mark Hoffman's dish of homemade tomato fettuccine and lump crab. If you need some comfort food, Due has just the thing -- gremolada mashed potatoes. "We boil red-skinned potatoes and saute them with cream, butter, lemon and garlic," explains Mr. Dame. They are even lumpy, just like Mom's. Try them with Due's traditional osso buco -- braised veal shank. Oh, the unofficial dessert of the house has to be chocolate chunk creme brulee. Everyone loves it.
Germano's Trattoria, 300 S. High St., (410) 752-4515: Customers weren't happy when he removed the homemade bread sticks from the tables, says Germano Fabiani, who has been serving Tuscan cuisine in Little Italy for the last 17 years. With revolt simmering, the breadstick assembly line is rolling again. Why the fuss? Well, the bread sticks are made fresh every day. The rest is a secret and Mr. Fabiani isn't talking. Top Tuscan favorites are pappa al pomodoro, a thick soup made from bread, water,
tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, and baccala, a dried fillet of codfish that is baked in tomato, olive oil and garlic. Another house favorite is Arista, a boneless rack of pork that is roasted and then cooked with prunes and peaches. Mr. Fabiani says the recipe is from Florence and dates to the 1400s. Top desserts include marango cioccolato, a meringue covered in chocolate, and panna cotta, a serenely simple custard.
Greenspring Inn, 10801 Falls Road, Lutherville, (410) 823-1125: A sister restaurant to the Bamboo House in Cockeysville and at the harbor, the Greenspring Inn has its own list of favored dishes. General Tso's chicken -- lightly breaded white meat served in a mixture of soy sauce, wine, vinegar and hot sauce, and dotted with just-cooked broccoli -- is No. 1 with diners, says general manager Mimi Yu.
Seafood also tops the list there. Shrimp toast followed by owner Joey Chiu's Green Spring special -- shrimp, scallops and king crab meat with Chinese vegetables and Ming sauce -- is always in great demand. And during the season, soft-shell crabs in aromatic spices is a hit. "We saute the soft shells, but we do it the Chinese way," says Ms. Yu.