New decor dazzles -- food could catch up

Restaurant: Paolo's kitchen shows it has the potential to turn out exciting dishes, but at the moment it's offering only mixed results.

January 31, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

When the first Paolo's opened here a decade ago (another one followed in Towson), Baltimore had never seen anything quite like it. Cal-Ital had arrived: chic, fresh Italian food that included great salads and inventive pizzas and pastas. Paolo's contemporary setting had as much pizazz as the food, and Baltimore loved it. The only downside was the noise level at this always busy, stylish bistro.

Over the years Paolo's Harborplace got a little worn around the edges, as restaurants do when they age, so the parent company, Capital Restaurant Concepts, closed it last year for a complete makeover and expansion. The results are dazzling: all pink marble, black granite and blond wood.

Now they need to do the same for the food.

These days a menu that once seemed fresh and inventive comes off as a bit fussy. The pizza of the day from Paolo's wood-burning oven was a good example: The toppings included -- but didn't seem to be limited to -- pancetta, pepperoni, braised tenderloin beef tips and Boursin cheese.

"It doesn't taste as weird as it sounds," said the friend who ordered the beef-tipped pizza, which was damning with faint praise if I ever heard it.

Some dishes just flat out didn't work, like my pasta of the day with mussels and rockfish. The seafood was slightly overcooked, and the chunks of rockfish contained several nasty little bones. Tossed with leeks, peppers, cherry tomatoes and sage fettuccine in an herb- scented cream sauce, the seafood would have been at least edible -- except that its pasta had sat too long before being brought to the table. It came in a thick clump.

One of the restaurant's specialties, a Terra Mare mixed grill, featured a medallion of beef tenderloin, a chicken sausage, one shrimp and one scallop -- all good, the meat very good. But please. Give us two scallops.

The real problem, though, was that the "fire-roasted tomato sauce" was so eye-wateringly fiery. (Its heat was never mentioned on the menu.) No one at the table could eat it. Our waiter, to his credit, took the dish away and had it replated with a demi-glace that went with a veal dish. I didn't like the new sauce much, but I appreciated his efforts.

Our meal wasn't as dismal as all this sounds for several reasons. Warm bread sticks and tapenade made us happy to begin with, our appetizers and desserts were fine, and Eric the waiter took good care of us.

You should start with Paolo's tender tortellini with Gorgonzola cheese, button mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto in a rosy cream sauce that sang with seductive flavor. Fried wonton shells formed a poetically named Crispy Beggar's Purse, which was filled with lightly steamed spinach, mushrooms and melting cheese. Its tomato coulis was spicy but without the knock-'em-dead punch of the mixed grill's sauce.

Paolo's carpaccio was cooked a bit more than is traditional (traditional being cooked not at all), but the razor-thin slices of rare beef with shavings of Romano and lightly dressed greens were delicious.

Alas, Paolo's Italian version of creme brulee wasn't available that night; but we made do very well with a classic tiramisu, a cake layered with chocolate mousse and a creamy hazelnut cheesecake.

So Paolo's kitchen still has the potential to turn out some very good food. Those tortellini and the tiramisu were witness to that. But the restaurant trend of the late '90s is to simplify, simplify, because that's what customers seem to want. You can't do that with pizzas that have tenderloin tips and pancetta on them.

PAOLO'S

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $5.50-$7.95; main courses: $9.95-$17.95

Call: 410-539-7060

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

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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