A graceful setting, an elegant meal Restaurant: The Brass Elephant's menu has moved from northern Italian cuisine to new American, but the accent is still on excellence.

November 08, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Near where we were seated in the Brass Elephant's main dining room, a couple were getting engaged. There was barely room enough on their table for the enormous bouquet of red roses. He was wearing a tux. The waiter wheeled out a cart with a bottle of champagne and a whole chocolate cake for two (my kind of proposal), and pretty soon she was flashing an enormous diamond ring.

I can't imagine a more romantic place to get engaged; and if their meal was as good as ours, they must have been doubly happy. But, of course, probably neither of them was thinking about the food.

Although I have had a casual meal or two at the bar upstairs, I last ate in the Brass Elephant's formal dining rooms almost five years ago. I was struck again by how exquisite they are. Once an elegant townhouse, the restaurant seems to belong to a different era. The ornate double mantelpieces, carved woodwork, high ceilings, gold-framed mirrors and candlelighted tables create a graceful setting for almost any occasion - from treating yourself to an evening out to getting engaged. (A minor note: It would be nice if the ladies room were as lovely.)

The Brass Elephant's menu has always been characterized as northern Italian. In Baltimore that seems to mean almost anything that doesn't involve a lot of red sauces and garlic; but with a new chef, David Rudie, in the kitchen, there are even fewer pastas and Italian ingredients than I remember. If I had to describe the menu, I'd say new American with an Italian grandmother standing in the background.

Appetizers range from a charming conceit like the escargot "cigars" to a dark, intense wild mushroom and asparagus soup, filled with woodsy flavors. Those cigars are actually plump snails rolled in a crisp bit of phyllo pastry and sauced seductively with beurre blanc.

A silky, buttery sauce also enhanced a remarkable concoction of portobello mushroom, spaghetti squash, lump crab meat, a bit of ham and tomato. A sampler of three pates made in-house is so good you'll be tempted to eat every bite and leave room for nothing else.

As for main courses, the two dishes people come back again and again for, our waiter told us, are the filet mignon and the rack of lamb. The filet was everything he promised. Flavorful, butter-tender and rosy-centered, it was gently charred and had superb accompaniments: a dark, winy sauce; a savory bread pudding studded with dried cherries; baby carrots and slivers of red pepper. The lamb, alas, didn't quite live up to its billing. Although full of meaty flavor, it was served very rare instead of medium as ordered. But its timbale of wild rice and spinach alongside was appealing.

We had no complaints about the grilling of another of our entrees, tuna with a burgundy shrimp sauce. It was medium as ordered. As with our other dishes, the tuna's accompaniments were as good as they were clever. In this case, herbed waffles added a savory bit of crunch while a "napoleon" of eggplant, spinach and squash provided a range of textures and tastes.

A combination of plump scallops, smoked salmon, mushrooms and a bit of tomato was inspired, with tender pasta to soak up the delicious lemon butter sauce.

Until this point in the meal, the service was superb, with just the right amount of intelligent commentary, attentiveness and unobtrusiveness. Then things fell apart. Our up-till-then excellent waiter deposited dessert menus on our table as he raced by, and we didn't see him again until we finally complained.

Once we had given him our order, I could understand why it took so long to get our desserts to the table. (They were elaborate and beautiful.) But why we didn't get coffee mystified me.

Oh well. The evening had been such a smashing success until then, it almost didn't matter.

Food: ***1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ****

Where: 924 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open every night for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$9; main courses, $18-$28; major credit cards

Call: 410-547-8480

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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