How do you reinvent a landmark restaurant that's fallen on hard times? That was Rob Freeman's job when he took over the Polo Grill from his father-in-law, Lenny Kaplan, earlier this year. The answer seems to be that you give it a new name, a striking new look and a new chef. You announce that you want to create a restaurant that will attract a neighborhood crowd as well as the high rollers, one with a dramatically different and more affordable menu.
Then -- and this is the tricky part -- you actually create two restaurants. One is a hip new bar, greatly expanded from the old one, with its own menu, where folks can get a meal for $15 or $20. The other is a spare but luxurious dining room, where a lobster and filet mignon combination costs $54.
Four West is a more elegant restaurant than the Polo Grill, but no more affordable. Let's stop a moment and share a quiet chuckle at the fact that the restaurant calls itself an American brasserie -- at least if you believe that a brasserie is an informal place serving simple food.
Still, the food in the bar comes out of the same kitchen, and it's fairly reasonable.
The bar these days is jamming. The main dining room seems to be doing well, too, perhaps because it's both updated and much the same. Daniel Proctor of Kirk Designs has taken some elements of the Polo Grill's hunt-club decor -- most notably the cherry wood paneling and wine rack -- and used them as the beginnings for a clean-lined, contemporary space in shades of graphite and cream, with one area painted pomegranate red. At the same time the room has a familiar feel to it, maybe because the handsomely set tables seem to be in roughly the same configuration. The only negative is that the decorative screens dividing the bar from the dining room don't stop the smoke. If that will bother you, ask to be seated at a table on the other side of the room.
In trying to create a menu worthy of the setting, one that seems fresh but pays homage to the restaurant's past, executive chef Jerome Dorsch has his work cut out for him. For the most part, he's succeeded. There are Maryland classics (crab cakes and surf and turf). There are Polo Grill signature dishes (corn and crab chowder, the wedge of iceberg lettuce salad, a fried lobster tail, the banana cream and white chocolate pie). And then there are the dishes that are probably Dorsch's alone: elaborate creations using seasonal ingredients with Asian and Southwestern accents. The menu is a little heavy on ingredient pride (do we really need to know that it's Bell & Evans chicken?), but there's plenty to appeal to almost every taste -- if not every pocketbook.
A raw-bar sampler puts others to shame. Oysters and clams are icy cold and slithery sweet, while two shrimp draped near them are so big they're scary. At the center of the plate a radicchio leaf lovingly cradles snowy lumps of crab meat. Cocktail and mignonette sauces are served on the plate, but the seafood is so good you don't really need them.
After that, appetizers get complicated. Order the mussels of the day and you might find the grit-free beauties treated to a bath of white wine and broth, with chopped tomatoes, spinach and a spicy red-pepper coulis. Cremini mushrooms are stuffed with crab, spinach and fontina, then broiled, then arranged with almost mathematical precision around a tiny pile of crisp onion strings. Clams and calamari are a study of two kinds of tender, chewy fried tidbits without a lot of seafood flavor, but who cares when the dish includes the spicy tomato coulis, the aioli, the micro greens and the pecorino cheese.
Sometimes at a restaurant it's the small pleasures of garnishes, sauces and sides that are most memorable. Sea scallops cooked only to the jellied center point benefited mightily from their lemony sauce, the noteworthy risotto with a thick curl of bacon, and fresh corn and asparagus. Rare tuna in a sesame crust was fine, but the memory lingers on the shrimp dumplings, wasabi mashed potatoes, a spicy curry vinaigrette and crisp yucca chips.
Veal scaloppine had a bit too much crust for my taste, and the grilled asparagus was too charred, but the dish works as a sort of contemporary veal Oscar, with lobster instead of crab and a bit of spicy tomato and butter sauce instead of bearnaise.
Oddly enough, my favorite of all our entrees was the modest vegetarian lasagna. Roasted vegetables, four softly melting cheeses and a plush tomato sauce are layered in this sloppy, delicious creation.
When it comes to desserts, the signature banana cream pie should not be skipped. It's a great cloud of custard and whipped cream, with fresh bananas a discreet note of flavor. Curls of white chocolate top this decadent edifice. The kitchen's homemade ice creams are wonderful, but that's nothing new. They always have been. A classic carrot cake with raisins and cream-cheese icing didn't disappoint. Avoid the tiramisu, however. It was probably fine the day it was made, but this wasn't that day.
Atmosphere: *** 1/2
Where: Inn at the Colonnade, 4 W. University Parkway, Baltimore
Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, brunch and dinner Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$18; main courses, $15-$54
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *