Visual merit part of appeal at civilized Preston's 500

Variety: Chef Brian Martin, now in Roland Park, offers meat, seafood and vegetarian choices

Sunday Gourmet

March 12, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Preston's 500, the new restaurant in Roland Park, is a feast for the eyes. Maybe you can't really appreciate how amazing the transformation is unless you remember the Dragon Palace, the nondescript Chinese restaurant that preceded it. The renovation of the dining rooms has created intimate, civilized spaces with soft colors in gold and earth tones. The lighting is subdued and flattering. Nooks and alcoves are filled with an urn or a spray of flowers. Paintings intrigue as well as decorate.

Each dish the kitchen produces is visually worthy of its surroundings. How can you do anything but admire a pedestrian-sounding lentil soup when it turns out to be a silky taupe puree with circles of cream etched into its surface and four miniature slices of lamb tenderloin arranged poetically at the center?

Chef Brian Martin, late of the Milton Inn, Hamilton's and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, has created a quirky menu that will delight some, irritate others. One diner reading the menu felt that every dish had one ingredient he didn't want. Another said she would always choose interesting food (even if it didn't quite succeed) over a boring "good" meal.

I fall somewhere in between. Quirky and good don't have to be mutually exclusive; and when the kitchen makes sure they aren't, Preston's 500 will be a restaurant to be reckoned with.

Some items on the menu are simply a bad idea, like the kalamata-crusted striped bass fillet. The dark, briny flavor of the olive is so intense it overwhelms the delicate flesh of the fish. Even caramelized fennel and a celery root puree can't save the dish.

Likewise a "ragout of duck" for a first course involves braised duck over a mound of mashed potatoes with mushrooms, goat cheese and beans. It's an appetizer in name only -- consider it a small entree.

Some of our dishes were flawed in the execution. Most notably, that beautiful soup arrived lukewarm. Shrimp and spinach risotto with citrusy undertones had great potential, but the rice was crunchier than it should have been. "Duck Over Eggs and Nest," clever for the sake of being clever, featured baby turnips for eggs and fried shredded potatoes for a nest. Too bad the luscious slices of duck breast were so fatty.

Still, some dishes had more than their share of the "wow" factor. One of Martin's signatures is to present on the same plate a meat cooked two different ways -- he does it with beef, chicken and lamb. To indulge in his seared, pink-centered tenderloin paired with braised short ribs is to get at the zen of why homey comfort food and pure extravagance can be equally and deeply satisfying.

He also pairs raw and cooked endive as a first course, the creamy-white vegetable enlivened with duxelles, walnuts and Parmesan cheese. A great combination. Equally good was a first course of sweetbreads placed with Japanese simplicity and attention to detail on a bed of arugula. The warm bacon dressing perfectly complemented the pleasantly bitter greens.

This is clearly a winter menu, offered with a wine list that emphasizes reds. But besides the substantial meat dishes, tailor-made to be enjoyed in cold weather, there are several choices for vegetarians, including chestnut-filled pierogi with a butternut squash sauce and "pot roast" made with portobello mushrooms.

Desserts are complicated and offbeat, except for a fruit-and-cheese plate and cheesecake with strawberries. You could get a chocolate oblivion truffle torte with strawberry mousse and peanut butter anglaise, for instance, or butterscotch mousse in a caramel basket with a fricassee of caramelized fruit. None of the ones we tried quite lived up to its looks, but their looks set the bar so high that's not a serious criticism.

Preston's 500

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 500 W. University Pkwy.

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Saturday and Sunday for brunch, every night for dinner.

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$8; main courses, $12-$24

Call: 410-662-6030

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

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