Grille 700 delivers on most promises

Restaurant: Appetizers are so delicious, it's hard for the entrees to compete.

Sunday Gourmet

April 22, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

You know downtown Baltimore has reached the big leagues when dinner for four at a Marriott coffee shop costs $200. Of course, this is the shiny new Marriott Waterfront, and the management would never label Grille 700 anything so plebeian as a coffee shop. Still, you can get breakfast and lunch as well as dinner here, and there's a formal dining room scheduled to open in the hotel sometime soon. So to my mind it's a coffee shop.

And what a beautiful one it is. Its dark wood and swooping curves suggest a luxury ocean liner, and the large windows open out to a watery view. In the day the room is bright and cheerful; you notice the open kitchen, raw bar and bakery counter. At night the lights are lowered, and the setting seems less casual and more sophisticated -- as does the menu.

Yes, there are brick oven pizzas, but most of the dishes are serious food: elaborately presented creations with a nouvelle Mediterranean sensibility. They are almost too artistic to eat, and some, alas, look better than they taste.

Grille 700 set the bar high with our first courses. I loved the simplicity of perfectly fresh shellfish on the raw bar sampler, unfussed with except for a lemon wedge and a bit of seafood sauce. Two monster shrimp were nestled with a snow crab claw, a tender clam and three briny fresh oysters.

Frisee wilted with warm sherry vinaigrette and decorated with blue cheese and pancetta was one of several appealing salads on the menu.

Creamy crab and corn chowder managed to be delicate and wickedly rich at the same time, with large lumps of crab and a slightly smoky flavor. Risotto with shrimp, tender-crisp bits of asparagus and shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano had only one flaw. There was enough of it to make a light supper, and it was hard to stop eating.

Our main courses didn't quite live up to the promise of the appetizers. Still, you have to give the kitchen credit. The attempt was worthy in just about every case.

Beef tenderloin wrapped in pancetta dazzled with an elegant tamarind-chipotle glaze, which added intriguing notes of spice and fruit, but the meat itself wasn't memorable. A cloud of whipped sweet potatoes and the crisp filigree of fried sweet potato slivers on top were more notable, and the sauteed portobello mushrooms scattered near it had more meaty flavor.

Tuna in a red pepper and olive sauce, crusted with pepper like a fine steak, could have been spectacular; but it was ordered rare and came well done. Again, the supporting cast -- couscous and fresh spinach -- upstaged the star.

Grille 700's version of Maryland crab cakes had beautiful snowy lumps, but I can't speak to the seasonings because the sharply flavorful corn relish that spilled over the crab cakes dominated them. But their golden-crusted round of fried polenta was out of this world.

I ordered the spit-roasted chicken with preserved lemons and olives, grilled eggplant and almond couscous -- a classic Moroccan tajine -- but it wasn't available. I settled for a chicken breast quarter glazed with a delicate sauce of orange and tamarind, the hit of the evening as far as I was concerned, although I found the saute of apples, onion, and potatoes that came with it less interesting than some of our other side dishes.

As with the rest of our meal, enormous attention was paid to the looks of our desserts. A tart slice of Key lime cheesecake was set on its end so that the triangle looked like a sail; mango and strawberry sauce formed a sunset background. A lethal chocolate mousse was balanced with the tangy fruitiness of blackberries and orange slices. Two miniature creme brulees lay on almond wafers with a spoonful of sour-sweet cherries on the side. My favorite was an adult version of a Dreamsicle, with orange sorbet, Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and almond pastry.

In odd contrast to this upscale fare was our down-home waiter. He was friendly as all get out, but he did do some puzzling things. For instance, he took our butter plates and the bread when he brought our main courses and never brought us clean ones or more bread. We also had a tough time getting our water glasses filled. Still, dishes arrived in a timely fashion, and these days I sometimes think that's about all you can hope for.

GRILLE 700

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: Marriott Waterfront, 700 Aliceanna St.

Hours: Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$12; main courses, $18-$32

Call: 410-385-3000

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

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