Savoring the glow of the occasion

Restaurant: Its appetizers, desserts and decor reach the heights even if some entrees don't, so the Brass Elephant remains a worthy place for celebrations.

May 27, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

So civilized, so unpretentious. Dinner at the Brass Elephant is an enjoyable experience, even though over the years the food itself has sometimes been great, sometimes not quite up to the standard set by the beautifully appointed dining rooms.

Recently I ate at the Brass Elephant -- so named because of the sconces shaped like elephant heads -- on a weeknight when just about every table was taken. It's a special-occasion restaurant, if only for its looks, and this time of year there are plenty of engagements, graduations and other special occasions to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, that meant the main dining room, the most beautiful one, was filled, so we were seated in a small, dark-paneled room in back. It's a pretty room, with a high ceiling and carved woodwork. But the tables were close together, and it didn't have quite the panache of the front room. (I was impressed, though, that the staff managed so many people so well. We never felt our service suffered as our waitress deftly handled a large engagement party as well as us.)

The Brass Elephant has made one improvement since I was last there. Besides a pre-theater menu for $25, there's a chef's tasting menu for $30 available every night but Saturday. If you like a multicourse meal but find it's normally too much food, this is for you. The tasting menu includes a choice of appetizers, soup or salad, entree and dessert -- in small, but not skimpy, portions.

You might start, for instance, with a pate sampler that includes two enticing slices rather than the three on the regular menu. The pan-seared Alaskan halibut is perhaps half the size -- in other words, the amount you'd probably prepare for yourself. That gives you a chance to appreciate the couscous, cooked risotto-style so it's fabulously creamy. Which is good, because the halibut itself was overcooked.

In fact, that was pretty much the way it went through our meal. Great appetizers, somewhat problematic entrees. The perfectly grilled shrimp with an edge of smoky flavor enhanced by julienne vegetables were followed by beef tenderloin that was on the done side of medium. (It had been ordered medium rare.) And its Madeira truffle sauce tasted more like bottled steak sauce than haute cuisine.

Escargots nestled in tiny tart shells and bathed in a buttery sauce hinting of Galliano were balanced by bright slivers of squash. It was a letdown to follow such a sublime dish with fusilli in a too-salty marinara sauce. (Of course, more of those superb shrimp and a large spoonful of lump crab meat at the center helped rescue it.)

Only a beautifully grilled giant pork chop with a fruity port and fig reduction surpassed its predecessor -- which was saying something, because the appetizer was a fine eggplant roulade stuffed with spinach and goat cheese.

The kitchen pays attention to what accompanies the main attraction. You have to love that. A pretty mesclun salad with pine nuts and slivers of red pepper and hearts of palm had a vinaigrette so appealing it was hard not to chase down every last leaf of lettuce on the plate. The pork chop came with a chunky wedge of crisp polenta, the beef with a buttery, brown-edged rectangle of potatoes Anna.

While I had my quarrel with a couple of our main courses, our desserts reached the heights our appetizers had. A delicate chocolate mousse on crunchy hazelnut meringue was the best of them; but even a pear dessert that contained no easily discernible pear was completely satisfying. Fruit drizzles, whole strawberries, blackberries and swirls of whipped cream prettily gilded each lily.

So there were a few glitches with our meal. Perhaps it was the crowds that evening; perhaps it was the recent personnel changes in the kitchen. But you had to count them minor. I always find that, on the whole, the Brass Elephant delivers.

BRASS ELEPHANT

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: 924 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open for dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$9; main courses, $19-$31

Call: 410-547-8480

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

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