New chef gets place to shine Restaurant: In the evening, the prize-winning Ernie Herzog presents his creations at Pavone.

December 22, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This year, the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel has really pulled out all the stops. They just completed a major renovation and managed to lure a hotshot chef to direct all food operations.

Peripatetic chef Ernie Herzog has long been gathering up

awards, including South Carolina's Chef of the Year. Since landing in Baltimore, his tasks have been to oversee the Radisson's main dining room (Sausalito), its cafe, banquet business and room service. Perhaps as a show of gratitude, the hotel management has just given him his own signature restaurant, Pavone, where he can engage in his every flight of culinary fancy.

They've bequeathed him a space that, by day, is the casual Peacock Cafe. When the sun goes down, however, it becomes Pavone (peacock in Italian). Every evening the dining room undergoes a metamorphosis: Cushy armchairs are dragged in, white linens swaddle the tables and elegant china makes an appearance. But there remains the indelible mark of a mild-mannered deli, complete with vacant counter and refrigerator case. It's a bit like Cinderella decked for the ball still wearing her daytime house-cleaning mules.

Despite the lingering deli aura, a nervous wait staff and an endless loop of Umberto Tozzi's greatest hits on the soundtrack, chef Herzog manages to create a comfortable and festive dining experience at Pavone, perfect for nabbing all those Mechanic Theatre patrons across the street.

The daily changing menu offered a number of stylish starters on the evening of our visit. Curried red lentil soup was presented as an empty bowl containing only a tiny pastry fillip, over which a dusky orange puree was ladled. A little more texture would have lent interest to the soup's savory and pleasant flavor.

A duo of smoked crab cake and lobster cake was paired with a stone-ground mustard sauce and a garlicky emerald pesto. While the succulent lobster meat was shown off to best effect, the delicate crab meat was overly smoked.

Our favorite starter was a playful "inverted ravioli." Plush and thinly sliced salmon enfolded a passel of acini di peppe (tiny, round pasta pearls) and a fine mirepoix of celery, carrot and onion. A lemony beurre blanc added an opulent touch.

One of our entrees also came swathed in a rich beurre blanc: a rock-salt-crusted black-striped bass, served with a healthy plop of very cheesy saffron risotto and a chunk of roasted fennel bulb. The nicely cooked whole fish was presented and served table-side, complete with wheeled-out Bunsen burner to keep the fish warm while it was being sliced. Maybe I've suffered through too many presentations of cherries jubilee and bananas Foster, but the table-side showmanship seemed entirely superfluous.

Our other entree choices are sure to please the carnivore. A fan of pink duck breast slices encircled two big pieces of duck leg confit. The salty and meltingly tender leg meat was a lovely foil for the sweet, honey-cured breast. Another meaty dish paired antelope shank with a deer chop, topped with frizzled carrots and accompanied by a butterscotch bean stew.

Desserts are certainly some of the kitchen's crowning achievements. A chocolate Belgian waffle with a ball of hazelnut ice cream was outdone only by a gorgeous, buttery apple strudel. Dotted with tart dried cherries and toasted walnuts, the strudel was accompanied by cinnamon ice cream. A chocolate souffle, while not quite as fetching to look at, was a dense, molten chocolate miracle.

The wine list is weighted to big Italian reds and delicate Italian whites, with just enough heavy-hitting, big-name Bordeaux and moderately priced Californian wines to please everyone. We chose an inky Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino with a stunning berry-cherry nose. Our only quibble with the wine selection is that vintage dates should be listed: We didn't know if we were getting the spectacular 1990, the lower-fruit concentration of 1991 or something even more recent.

Pavone

Where: 20 W. Baltimore St., in the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel

Hours: Open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$8.50; entrees, $14.50-$22; major credit cards

Call: (410) 539-8400

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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