Disappointing almost from beginning to end

March 20, 1997|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When I first heard that the Hyatt was changing the concept for its mid-price, third-floor restaurant, the word was that it was going to be a "politically incorrect lounge." You know -- oversized martinis, fat cigars, no apologies. I was picturing a cross between the clubby martini bar at Savannah and the hazy cigar mania at Max's.

Well, after visiting the bistro twice, once for lunch and once for dinner, it is clear to me that the Hyatt needs to concentrate on more than Bistro 300's political orientation. The space, the service and the food conspire to create a uniquely unpleasant dining experience.

Soaring poured-concrete columns, 30-foot ceilings and a vast pebble-bottomed pool give the dining room the ambience of a civic center or an upscale bus depot. Except for an amateurish mural of Baltimore on the back wall, the decor is all gray and black, adding no warmth to an already austere space.

On a sunny day the room benefits from sunlight streaming in from the high windows, but at night the feeling is overwhelmingly cold.

That feeling was echoed by the service on our lunch visit. Our waitress clearly had other priorities (although, as far as we could tell, we were her only table). There was no "How are you today?" No "Would you like coffee or dessert?" Just the bill, proffered rapidly with grim determination.

Our waiter at dinner was considerably warmer, although he would disappear for great stretches, rushing back to deposit our entree plates on top of our just-delivered appetizers. By meal's end our table was so strewn with uncleared dishes that it was tough for him to find a spot to place our check.

The bar does indeed have a politically incorrect menu featuring martinis and cigars (we saw no one indulging in either, though). The dining room, with its regional American menu, tries to offer something for all political stripes. The funny thing is, the American cities and towns represented seem to have very little bearing on their designated dishes. Why does a four-cheese pizza hail from Sausalito? The Texas-style barbecue ribs are supposedly fashioned after those in the Rocky Mountains. And what does chicken salad have to do with Federal Hill, for that matter?

There were a few creditable dishes on our visits. Peel-and-eat shrimp, served stylishly in a martini glass (they've gotta do something with all those glasses), were coated with crab seasoning and accompanied by zingy cocktail sauce. The Cobb salad was appealing -- a huge bowl of iceberg lettuce topped with chunks of chicken, avocado, bacon and the rest of the fixings. And a fusilli dish was overcooked but benign, tossed with strips of chicken, asparagus, peppers and tomatoes.

The rest of the dishes we tried were bad ideas, poorly executed. The aforementioned ribs were served with "cole slaw" and black beans. The cole slaw turned out to be simply a bed of shredded cabbage, slightly wilted underneath the hot ribs; the beans were chewy and absolutely drenched in barbecue sauce. While the ribs themselves were pleasant, the whole dish was monochromatic and monotone.

The most egregiously bad idea was a crab cake napoleon. First of all, it wasn't even a napoleon (a delicate, many-layered concoction). This was two crab cakes flavored with far too much celery seed. One sat on a wan, underripe round of tomato, the other perched on a cold potato pancake. The rest of the plate was covered with vinegary portobello mushrooms and more underripe tomato, and then the whole thing was blanketed in Russian dressing. Who thought of this?

Even desserts were disappointing. We waited forever while our apple pie was "being warmed," only to receive stone-cold, stale-tasting mush. Boston cream pie was a gloppy, puddingy mess. Even a scoop of Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream tasted gummy and old.

Bistro 300

Hyatt Regency Hotel, 300 Light St.

410-528-1234

Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: appetizers, $5.25-$13; entrees, $7.95-$14.95

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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