The service at Abacrombie isn't as bad as it seems. It's just that the restaurant, which is across from the Meyerhoff, has gotten swamped. At 6 p.m. every table was taken. By 8 p.m. everyone has gone to the concert, leaving just my husband, a couple of friends and me.
Customer-wise, it's feast or famine at this location. It always has been. It was when the space was La Tesso Tana, and before that when it was Grille 58. For some reason, despite pretty dining rooms and good food, people have always forgotten about the restaurants here unless there's an event at the Meyerhoff or Lyric.
So my first advice if you plan to have dinner at Abacrombie -- which is well worth doing -- is to pick an off night. Or if you do want to eat before an event, at least give the new restaurant a few more weeks to work out the kinks.
What do I mean by kinks? Well, soon the owners will realize it doesn't make sense to have the server place a roll on each customer's butter plate with tongs when the place is busy. If nothing else, nervous staff tend to drop them on the floor.
Then there's the busboy who was filling glasses and poured water all over my friend's butter plate. He rushed away but forgot to come back and deal with it -- or fill the rest of the glasses on the table, for that matter.
Not to mention that no one took our order for a solid half hour after we sat down.
And my friend's dessert, billed on the prix fixe menu as warm chocolate bread pudding with creme anglaise, inexplicably turned into pineapple crepes with ice cream. It had been so long since we had ordered, I wasn't sure I remembered right until I consulted the menu later. No one, such as our waitress, seemed to notice.
Why am I not grumpier about all this? I think it's because the people are so nice and are trying so hard; the place, newly renovated, looks very good; the chef knows what he's doing; and the concept seems workable -- the concept being a very limited and ever-changing menu.
The prix fixe dinner this evening started with an elegant salad featuring baby lettuce, lobster meat, asparagus and a gutsy little lemon dressing. Three meaty rack-of-lamb chops, cooked rosy rare, packed plenty of flavor. Pairing them with a dice of potatoes, artichokes and olives was a stroke of culinary genius.
The dinner's $30 price tag includes dessert -- remember to insist on the promised one. For $8 more, we got a glass of sparkling wine with the salad and a glass of syrah with the lamb, both quite respectable.
On the a la carte menu, the pot-au-feu strikes a high note, a sort of contemporary version made with seafood instead of meat. The broth is filled with pieces of very fresh salmon, rockfish and shrimp cooked with cabbage and tomatoes. A swirl of horseradish cream adds a little luxury to the mix.
If you like your seafood simpler, fillet of salmon is cooked beautifully with a zing of curry powder, and it's bedded down on creamy cabbage.
A roasted chicken breast with a crisp golden skin is enhanced both by its savory bread pudding with caramelized onions and fresh corn cut off the cob. If neither appeals as a main course, there's also a filet mignon.
The appetizer menu is even shorter. A mesclun mix with Roma tomato salad is modest but pleasing, especially with its strip of highly seasoned, crisp flatbread. A pretty little bowl of grits sports fat chunks of shrimp with one big one sitting jauntily on top. The grits are too soupy, but the combination is indulgently good.
Only with sauteed sweetbreads did the execution falter noticeably. Paired with a tender garnish of oxtail, the sweetbreads could have soared. But they tasted more as if they had been deep-fat fried than sauteed, with a too greasy, crunchy exterior that overwhelmed their delicate flavor.
Dinner ends with clever variations on today's fad desserts. Creme brulee, for instance, is arranged like a Japanese bento box with an almond biscotti, diced strawberries soaked in liqueur, and ice cream. Apple tart tartin comes with coffee ice cream and caramel sauce. Spring rolls are filled with banana puree and lounge on the plate beside baked bananas with a creme brulee topping. The coffee is flavored with hazelnut -- not a favorite of mine, but I'm in the minority here -- so your tastebuds get quite a workout.
The chef is Sonny Sweetman, who with his wife, Melanie, owns the restaurant. Before the couple bought the 112-year-old bed and breakfast that houses Abacrombie last September, they worked at a Ritz-Carlton in Florida.
The Sweetmans spent several months renovating the appealing basement dining rooms. The antique bar has been moved to the former main dining room, which makes sense. The dining room and the "garden room" (which has a skylight) are now side by side.
The restaurant's black-and-white tiled floor and whitewashed brick walls create the backdrop for an elegantly simple, somewhat monochromatic setting. Contemporary appointments update the period rooms without seeming out of place.
The tables are set with small candles, white linen, heavy silverware and oversized wine glasses and water goblets. The chairs are comfortable, not something you have to perch on. If they turned the music down a notch, it would be as pleasant a place to eat as anywhere in Baltimore.
Food: *** 1/2
Where: 58 W. Biddle St., Baltimore
Hours: Open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner only
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$12; main courses, $16-$22
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *