Checking in with Polo Grill's new chef Restaurant: Some interesting dishes have appeared since Thomas Brown took over in the kitchen. But major changes are hard to find.

September 22, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Some restaurants are defined by their chefs. Pierpoint's Nancy Longo and La Tesso Tana's Ed Rogers come immediately to mind. Other restaurants transcend their chefs (assuming that the food coming out of the kitchen is halfway decent). Such a restaurant is the Polo Grill.

So pity Thomas Brown. He's the Polo Grill's new chef as of July. When I talked to him over the phone at the time, he had some very definite ideas about how he was going to improve things. And I'm sure he has. I'm just not sure anyone has noticed.

I'm not saying that the food is secondary at the Polo Grill. It's part of the total package: the comfortable, clubby setting; the superb service; the reliably good food. But along the lines of "if it ain't broke," how much is an imaginative young chef going to be allowed to change things?

"I'm going to be working on that bread basket," he told me in July. "I'm not going to be sending out white rolls and sesame bread sticks anymore."

Well, after two months the white rolls and bread sticks are still there. The signature American dishes are still on the menu as well: the fried lobster tail, the mashed potatoes, the Southern crab and sweet corn chowder, the American woodland mushroom tartlet (better than the silly name suggests).

But these are interspersed with dishes that change daily. They must be Brown's contribution to the menu, from the orecchiette pasta to the "market fish." His background is in French food, but he's comfortable creating risotto Milanese or a whole fish fried Asian style.

"There will be more seafood," he told me in July, and certainly the daily specials were almost exclusively seafood the night we were there. The star among the entrees was that market fish, a whole red snapper fried crisp and virtually grease-free. It was arranged upright as if it were about to swim away on a bed of tender-crisp vegetables. The sauce was delicately sweet-sour, nothing like the gloppy version you get in some Chinese restaurants.

Mahi-mahi was almost as good. The grilled fillet on a bed of couscous was pearly white and sweet, fresh and perfectly cooked. Thumbs down, though, on its searingly spicy charred tomato salsa.

The roast breast of pheasant was notable, flavorful and delightfully chewy with a winy sauce and sauteed napa cabbage as a counterpoint.

But what to choose as a starter? Should it be the house-smoked trout, firm and delicately wood-flavored and not at all too salty? Or the spectacularly good orecchiette pasta, tossed with pancetta, tomatoes and crab lumps?

There were a few disappointments -- almost too few to mention. The risotto with sauteed mushrooms and too-crisp pearl onions was uninteresting. For dessert, a bananas Foster clone with banana cream instead of ice cream, phyllo pastry and chocolate was simply too complicated to work, and heavy besides.

But who knows? Perhaps that last wasn't Brown's idea. After all, he implied he would be simplifying things a bit when he took over the kitchen; and one thing is certain about a banana, chocolate, phyllo, banana cream and brown sugar-butter sauce dessert. It isn't simple.

Polo Grill

Where: Doubletree Inn at the Colonnade, 4 W. University Parkway

Hours: Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: appetizers, $6.95-$12.95; entrees, $17.95-$36.95. Major credit cards

Call: (410) 235-8200

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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