Food: *** (3 STARS)
Service: *** (3 STARS)
Atmosphere: *** (3 STARS)
It's about time. The restaurant space in the Colonnade may finally be filled with the right sort of tenant. Not that there was anything much wrong with the Polo Grill, Four West or the Club at the Colonnade - the previous occupants - except that they all had upscale hotel prices.
The new owners have swept away all traces of the old Polo Grill, which in its heyday was one of Baltimore's finest. The restaurants that followed it had clung to a few of its signature dishes, most notably the fried lobster tail and white chocolate banana cream pie.
At Spice Company, they are replaced by a grilled lobster tail with wild mushroom risotto and minted pea puree at about half the price, and the ever-popular creme brulee or key lime pie.
A new beginning is a good idea, especially when it involves neighborhood-friendly prices (nothing on the menu is over $25) and dishes that acknowledge the global quality of today's American cuisine - full of intense flavors that often take the place of calories from fat. (But not always. The chicken in yellow curry appetizer wouldn't be so much fun if the sauce didn't involve a major amount of cream.)
One of the partners in Spice Company is Keir Singh, who owns the upscale Indian restaurant the Ambassador Dining Room and the Carlyle Club, which is Lebanese. Both are in the same neighborhood as his newest venture, but are quite different.
The yellow curry appetizer and a lentil soup are about the only hint of Singh's ethnic background on the Spice Company's menu. A few dishes are quite fiery, but for the most part the seasonings impart flavor, not excessive heat. Some are even tame, such as the halibut wrapped in a potato crust with spinach and a lemon-tarragon sauce.
Appetizers are where the kitchen is most inspired, and I've tried almost all of them. That's good news - with the popularity of small-plate eating, you can order a couple of these and have a fine meal, and no one will bat an eye. Tender cylinders of grilled calamari are stuffed with shrimp and feta. Made-on-the-premises cannelloni have a glorious duck and mushroom filling, which gets an extra jolt from the garlicky aioli. Lump crab has an affinity for beets and avocado, especially with the salad's citrus dressing. Pair gravlax with smoked salmon and you can appreciate both even more. A bit of caper potato salad adds to the pleasure.
None of the main courses we tried disappointed - far from it. But it's the appetizers that linger in the memory. Still, the kitchen knows its way around lamb, roasting it with a surprising (and spicy) sauce of eggplant, dried cranberries, mushrooms and feta cheese or grilling it and adding a puree of fava beans and deep green rapini.
Seared sea scallops are ornamented with a crisp-edged rice cake and a little mango chutney on the side. Then there's the retro duck dish, which I for one welcome. Slices of rare duck breast are all very well, but this comfort food version of duck has its own charm. It's still on the bone (although well cooked and moist enough to almost fall off), with a crisp skin and very little fat. The tart pomegranate sauce is delicately applied - not the usual lake of sugary fruit sauce that often comes with retro duck dishes.
Spice Company does all its own baking. The kitchen would do better to get its bread from some good bakery and concentrate on other things. The desserts are competent but not exciting. They are mostly standards except for the tuile, an almond cookie filled with berries. There's a creme brulee, a chocolate cake, a creamy rich cheesecake and key lime pie.
It's tough to assign stars for atmosphere here. I like the warm colors, the leopard skin carpet (shades of the Prime Rib), the spacious, beautifully set tables and the comfortable banquettes. I want to like the faux library-lounge at the entrance of the dining room, but I just can't. On the other hand, there's enough fabric to keep the noise level down, and the place is completely nonsmoking, including the bar. So, a conditional three stars.
Right now Spice Company is firing on all cylinders. It's in that heady period where it's getting all of the owners' attention and it's past the new restaurant jitters. The neighborhood seems to have embraced it, and there's always the hotel clientele to fall back on. Maybe this incarnation can succeed.
Podcasts of Elizabeth Large's reviews can be found at baltimoresun.com/large.
Address: Inn at the Colonnade, 4 W. University Parkway, Homewood
Hours: Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Prices: Entrees, $13-$25
[Outstanding: **** (4 STARS) Good: *** (3 STARS) Fair or uneven: ** (2 STARS) Poor: * (1 STAR)]