Occasion For Celebration

March 28, 1996

What makes a special-occasion dinner special? Glorious food, pampering service, a luxurious atmosphere -- a lot to ask of any restaurant.

We can all use a little help finding just the right place for an important event. An overcooked steak or a snippy server can ruin a celebration. Add to that the fact that superstar establishments usually charge acordingly. Choose the wrong place, and you've wasted a good bit of money. So for this spring's Dining Out guide, we sent our critics to the area's best restaurants to see what it would be like to celebrate and anniversay there or entertain a valued client.

We told the reviewers not to order the spaghetti if prime rib were on the menu, and to let us know if their waiiter did anything extra for them. In other words, to approach the meal as if it really were a special occasion.

Not everyone can afford Hampton's. the Prime Rib or the Milton Inn, Baltimore's creme de la creme. So we've included restaurants in various price ranges that offer pleasant surroundings, good service and at least some fancier-than-usual food for a celebration.

And to keep you current with Baltimore's restaurant scene -- no easy task, considering how quickly places open and close -- we've also reviewed spots that have opened since the fall dining guide was published. You'll find them starting on Page G10.

THE CRITICS

Janice Baker (JB), Mary Corey (MC), John Dorsey (JD), Michael and Sheila Dresser (M&SD), Lucy French (LF), Carol Frigo and Jon Morgan (CF&JM), Kathryn Higham (KH), Elizabeth Large (EL), Suzanne Loudermilk (SL) and John Rivera (JR). Stars are a rough guide to quality: **** (the best Maryland has to offer), *** (good), ** (fair or uneven), * (poor). Dollar signs suggest cost: $ inexpensive, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive, $$$$ very expensive.

Antrim 1844, 30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, (410) 756-6812. ** 1/2 $$$

Antrim, a country inn less than an hour from Baltimore, is a special place on many levels. The mansion is beautiful filled with antiques, fireplaces and brick floors the service is sophisticated and the food is mostly impressive.

Our evening began with the cocktail hour. We wandered through the inn's rooms sampling tender beef sate with horseradish mayonnaise and plump mushroom caps with spinach. But with so many large groups celebrating around us, we two couldn't help but feel like interlopers at someone else's dinner party.

During the fixed-price ($50) dinner, a delicious lobster and asparagus bisque helped us forget that party-crasher feeling. We even figured one bonus to sitting near the kitchen would be a piping-hot meal. Unfortunately, our main courses a juicy beef tenderloin and rich lobster imperial were tepid.

The ending left us in a more forgiving mood. Bread pudding, banana cheesecake, chocolate pate, a white chocolate truffle and berries with cream all on one plate: It was like dessert heaven.-- MC

Berry & Elliot's, Hyatt Regency Baltimore, 300 Light St., (410) 528-1234. **1/2 $$$$

Berry & Elliot's would like to be thought of as a celebration destination. But on a recent visit, eavesdropping revealed that patrons seemed split between visiting conventioneers and local businessmen in conference. It's a shame, because the stellar view and decadent food make the restaurant perfect for a festive occasion.

The wine list could feature a few more prestigious bottlings, but several of the chardonnays are nice accompaniments to the mostly seafood menu. The Glass Mountain Quarry chardonnay from Napa, for instance, is perfect for matching with the rich, creamy oyster stew, or the lobster ravioli with a tomato cream sauce.

Appetizer and entree portions are huge. A case in point is the mountain of crisp, greaseless fried calamari served with tomato-garlic aioli. For the landlubber, abundant slices of New York strip come with a mound of delicious Gruyere mashed potatoes. One unsolved mystery is why the kitchen insists on plopping piles of undressed salad greens under every entree. Desserts include a dense chocolate truffle cake and a homey cherry crumb cake.-- LF

Boccaccio, 925 Eastern Ave., (410) 234-1322. *** $$$

Where much of Little Italy shouts at you with bold signs, loud music and huge portions, Boccaccio whispers. It warmly invites you in with soft lights and peach-hued walls, then entices you to stay with its refined Northern Italian menu.

The service is equally subtle attentive without overwhelming you. Although your waiter won't win any speed races, he's not trying.

The grilled portobello mushrooms handsome, meaty caps drizzled with balsamic vinegar are worth the wait. And the veal Boccaccio covered in mushrooms, prosciutto and mozzarella explains why so many people rave about the veal dishes here.

Our only complaint: The grilled tuna with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes was woefully overcooked. As for endings, a homemade tiramisu was smallish but satisfying. And a melange of liqueur-infused berries with ice cream made summer seem not quite so far away.-- MC

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