Hampton's delivers on pampering

The setting is lavish, the food is comforting but still stylish

Sunday Gourmet

February 09, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

For a Grand Occasion, No Other Restaurant in Baltimore Delivers the Goods Like Hampton's in the Harbor Court Hotel. Dinner There Means a Lush, Romantic Setting Elaborate, Cosseting Service and Food That's Imaginative but Never Bizarre. Of Course, You Will Pay An Inordinate Amount of Money for It -- More Money Than Most of Us Can Afford to Spend -- but You Will Be Getting a Total Experience, Not Just a Meal. Over the years the lavishly appointed dining room has acquired a patina. Where once it seemed a little nouveau riche, all salmon pink and gilt-edged, it's now been softened without losing any of its sensual charm.

The look is traditional. The room may not actually be filled with antiques, but it has that feeling about it. A breakfront displays porcelain, while a gold-framed painting of flower ar-rangements mirrors the enormous bouquet that centers the room. The tables are spaced oh-so-far apart, then set with heavy white linens, sparkling glasses and pink-marbled Villeroy & Boch chargers. Alas, the incredibly comfortable wing chairs are being replaced by dining room chairs; but luckily we were seated at the one table that still has them. Comfort is a priority, even though the dining room is quite formal. And dinner here is a very civilized experience. Cell-phone conversations, for instance, are forbidden.

The food is like the dining room. At one point a few years ago, the kitchen veered off into edgy New American cuisine; but now it's gotten back to what it does best: high-style comfort food for the mink-coat set.

Some of it will make you swoon. Dinner starts with an amuse-bouche, this evening a stylized triangle of rye toast draped with a slice of smoked pheasant and a dab of apricot chutney. Then there's the signature lobster bisque. A heated bowl containing chopped tail meat and morels at its center arrives first; the waiter ladles in the creamy, blazingly hot bisque, heady with cognac, at the table.

A five-course winter menu for $65 ($90 with appropriate wines) starts with the bisque. It's followed by a delicate Caesar salad: just a few perfect leaves of red and green romaine, a shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano, one fat anchovy, a drizzle of horseradish-sparked dressing.

Half a crisp-skinned quail stuffed with diced sweetbreads competes for best-of-starters honors. It's placed next to a tiny, quivery Swiss chard custard and a preserved fig. None of this is too much as a prelude to the main course, peppery slices of just-pink pork tenderloin with a little pool of apricot sauce. They're flanked by a wedge of potatoes Anna made with sweet potatoes and braised cabbage. Hampton's classic creme brulee finishes the prix fixe meal with a flourish.

There are other dishes from the winter menu that seem heaven-sent: Seared scallops and lump crab meat nestle with a drizzle of bright-green, creamy spinach sauce -- a visual knockout. Rack of lamb chops are paired with braised lamb on the same plate; it's hard to decide which is more wonderful. Heads-on shrimp add a kick to tender slices of veal tenderloin. Seasonal vegetables, starches and compotes deserve attention in their own right: citrusy lemon spaetzle, a potato and tomato gratin, tender Brussels sprouts, roasted pearl onions.

And then there are the failures. Salmon cured like pastrami is interesting, but there's no rationalization for putting it with a small, cold blob of spaghetti-squash quiche. Risotto with porcini mushrooms and caramelized pumpkin sounds a lot more imaginative than the reality is. Grouper crusted with pumpkin seeds is too salty to eat. Cubes of pumpkin treated as dessert is a bad idea to begin with, no matter how nicely sauced and elegantly presented. Silly and wonderful desserts like baked Alaska are most delicious in their traditional form, which means not making them with ginger ice cream.

Still, most of the food lives up to its promise, and the thoughtful wine list doesn't disappoint. The bread, baked in the hotel's kitchen, is to die for. Even the after-dinner coffee is memorable.

The service, though not four-star as it has been in the past, is still a cut above almost every other restaurant in the city. This time the meal didn't progress quite as seamlessly as we expected. There was a long wait for half our party's drinks, for instance, which was inexplicable and a bit awkward. We had to ask for menus and bread. But after the rough beginning, the staff did what they do best at Hampton's: They made us feel pampered.

Hampton's

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ****

Where: Harbor Court Hotel, 550 Light St., Inner Harbor

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Sunday for brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $11-$12; main courses, $28-$41

Call: 410-234-0550

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

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