Feast for the eyes and palate

Harbor view combines with sophisticated food at Windows

Sunday Gourmet

August 11, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Windows, the restaurant in the Renaissance Harbor-place Hotel, isn't flashy; and it doesn't have much cutting-edge style. But the name says it all. What it lacks in hipness it makes up for with a gorgeous view of the Inner Harbor from just about any seat in the house.

It is, of course, a comfortable dining room, as befits a good hotel in a major city. The carpeting is thick, the chairs are cushy, the tables are large and well-spaced. You may not remember the decor, which is somewhat impersonal, but you will appreciate the view.

In this pleasant setting, the well-meaning staff bustles along, not as formal and suave as you might find at the most luxe restaurants but very competent, with that down-home friendliness I hope tourists think of as a Baltimore staple.

All this makes the sophistication of the food -- OK, sometimes it's the illusion of sophistication, which can be fun, too -- somewhat surprising. True, there is a chili on the menu; but it's a 12-bean vegetarian chili with smoked cheddar. (I don't know about you, but I can't name 12 varieties of beans.)

Executive chef Tim Mullen combines ingredients that are sometimes unexpected but never at odds with each other. The delicate triangle of polenta is served with pencil-thin asparagus, roasted tomatoes and truffle oil. A subtly smoky duck breast arranged with a fig chutney disappears from the plate quickly, as does a decorative shrimp appetizer flavored with honey, tomatoes and almonds.

If you yearn for traditional Maryland seafood but don't yearn to pay $28.95 for two crab cakes, the waitress will suggest the handsome lump crab cake appetizer for $12.95, along with a side dish of the vegetables of the day ($2.50) -- in this case, broccolini and those slender asparagus spears. But there's more intriguing seafood to be had. At the moment, a thick, sweet fillet of haddock is on the seasonal menu. It plays off a thin coating of -- of all things -- parsnips and comes with sugar snap peas and a herb-inflected, lemony salsa.

Windows' current menu would probably do just as well as a winter menu. Although there are more than enough seafood choices, robust cuts of meat are prominent, including a section of beef all to itself. This features well-marbled steaks treated in such a way that the quality of the beef shines through. The succulent New York sirloin, for instance, has a Mediterranean feel, with seasonings of garlic, oregano and lemon and potatoes roasted Greek style. Still, the meat is allowed to star.

A rosy slice of loin lamb, served with a smooth swirl of sweet potatoes and a faintly fruity jus, is an even better bet. In fact, the least successful of our main courses is the most summery one. A grilled vegetable tian, or molded dish, with a red pepper coulis doesn't involve enough vegetables for my taste. Paper thin layers of yellow squash are draped over the couscous flavored with blue cheese -- interesting but not a knockout, by any means.

Desserts at Windows have that kind of wild extravagance a meal like this should end with. Creme brulee isn't just creme brulee. It's a lemon-coconut filling for a tart shell. And it's served with a small almond cake. Cherry "soup" has a cinnamon pastry shell floating in it filled with pistachio ice cream in a hard chocolate shell. The dessert sampler is a handsome arrangement of chocolate mousse, cocoa sorbet and a cherry-almond cake, not to mention a trompe l'oeil edible sailboat. Luckily, all of them have good taste as well as good looks, which was true of most of the rest of our meal as well.

Add Windows to your list of restaurants to consider when out-of-towners come to visit and want Maryland seafood with a view of the harbor. Be prepared for the fact that the view of the harbor is a given, but the Maryland seafood is a little iffier. There is a crab cake and a rockfish dish on the menu, but your guests may be tempted to stray from the bay by the brioche-crusted swordfish, the prime rib, or the mango- and chipotle-glazed pork chop.

WINDOWS

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, 202 E. Pratt St., Baltimore

Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$12.95; main courses, $15.95-$38.95

Call: 410-685-8439

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

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