Chefs change, but the quality remains Restaurant: Dinner at Hampton's is still a first-class experience.

September 14, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For the most part that's a good thing -- at least when you're talking about Hampton's, Baltimore's premier luxury dining room.

What has changed is the hotel's executive chef, now Craig Scott; his sous chef, now Galen Sampson; and Hampton's chef, now Michael Delcambre. The three worked together for the past six years at big-name resorts before coming to Baltimore. This summer, with much fanfare, they revamped Hampton's menu, promising important changes, bold combinations, lighter foods and less fuss in preparation.

Be that as it may, dinner at Hampton's is much the same as it was when I last went three years ago: The food is almost incidental to the whole experience. A meal here is the epitome of the good life, with plush surroundings, exquisite service, an excellent wine list with many choices by the glass and -- what other restaurant in Baltimore would dare this? -- Beethoven for background music.

Even the flowers on the tables are the same as they were three years ago -- a single gardenia floating in a glass bowl. In fact, the salmon-colored dining room has changed so little over the years that it's beginning to have a faded grandeur rather than its earlier nouveau-riche showiness.

I suppose if I had to generalize about how this meal differed from my last at Hampton's, I would say there's less in the way of caloric luxury. If you've come to equate heavy cream with happiness, you're out of luck. The new menu is also going to be less appealing to the masses. As one of my guests said, "Do you think I could order the chilled potato soup, hold the smoked eel?"

Dinner began with an exquisite hors d'oeuvre, a bit of buttery-smooth fois gras with flecks of raisins and walnuts, one perfect miniature asparagus, two pencil-thin bread sticks and a little pinot noir sauce. As far as I was concerned, it was the high point of the meal.

To get the disappointments over with first, because there was also much to admire:

A marvelous lobster bisque was ladled into a cold soup bowl at the table, so it was room temperature when my friend started to eat it.

Slices of duck in a salad with wilted spinach and forest mushrooms were cooked well-done and so were quite tough.

Sauteed oysters dusted with curry arrived warm, but they were nestled in a cold cucumber coulis -- somehow the contrast didn't work.

Speckled trout and crab saltimbocca wrapped with Parma ham was a little dry because the fish had been overcooked.

A warm chocolate hazelnut cake sounded moister and richer than the reality turned out to be.

On the other hand, a first course of raw tuna, lusciously ripe avocado and ruby summer tomatoes, built into a little tower, was one of the best things I've ever put into my mouth. It was decorated with a summery little sauce reminiscent of gazpacho.

Rack of lamb chops vibrated with flavor, and were so lusciously tender you could cut them with the proverbial fork. They were served with crisp, fried ravioli, a clever accompaniment, smoky-flavored grilled eggplant and smooth polenta.

Breast of pheasant offered more subtle pleasures, the meat firm and white with a zingy sauteed spinach and an elegant bit of wild-rice sauce.

If you want something light for dessert, there's a delicate peach soup with a spoonful of homemade Key lime ice cream floating at its center. But you can also throw caution to the winds and order the dessert trio. Mousse encased in chocolate lace, a miniature creme brulee and a nut tartlet were pure bliss.

Hampton's

Where: Harbor Court Hotel, 550 Light St.

Hours: Open Tuesdays to Sundays for dinner, Sundays for brunch

Prices: Appetizers: $11-$16; entrees: $25-$38; prix-fixe dinners,

$45 and $55; major credit cards

Call: 410-234-0550

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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