Pisces swims in promising, though pricey, waters

palate restaurant review

palate restaurant review

August 31, 2008|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Pisces, under relatively new head chef George Gomez, deserves to be in any conversation about Baltimore's premier seafood restaurant, which is surprising for a hotel dining room. The fish and shellfish dishes I had there recently were that good.

There are three reasons the restaurant won't be mentioned.

First, the menu is too limited. This is actually a good idea for a hotel dining room and, in general, I like a short menu that the kitchen can easily handle. But you can hardly call a place a premier seafood restaurant if there are only four seafood choices among nine entrees. If your restaurant is called Pisces and you're in a seafood-loving city, you might want to subtract a couple of "Butcher's Block" dishes and add a couple to the "Fisherman's Catch" list. Just a thought.

Second, I know your dining room isn't a chain, but the hotel you're in is. You just don't feel like a Baltimore restaurant. You may think that's a good thing, of course. But as long as you're surrounding your fabulous crab cake with horseradish sauce, you won't be considered local. Old Bay aioli, OK. Hollandaise, maybe. A spicy horseradish sauce? Never.

Third, you're just too darned expensive, with a disregard sometimes for everything else but the seafood. When people are paying $42 for a crab cake dinner, even if they're on an expense account, they get picky. They won't be happy with an overdressed salad, even if it's an engaging combination of spinach, feta, orange slices and prosciutto. They won't consider a baby carrot and two baby squash, somewhat shriveled, a vegetable. And the slices of spicy skirt steak seem overpriced at $32, although the flavor is good if you're feeling like fiery food. Maybe they needed to be marinated longer. They were pretty chewy.

As for that $8 chocolate cake? All cakes need to be fresh to be at their best, but when there isn't any frosting, dryness is doubly noticeable. And I'm not sure the diced pineapple is a good idea in the bananas Foster. Sometimes a classic can't be improved on. Cheesecake rolled up in egg roll wrappers and deep fried is sort of controversial, too, now that I think about it.

So why did I even suggest you might be in the running as Baltimore's premier seafood restaurant? Well, there is that crab cake - the best I've had in a long time. How can a broiled crab cake, bursting with lumps and just the right amount of seasoning and binding, have such a lovely golden crust without being dry?

I saw no reason for the horseradish sauce; it overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the crab. But surprisingly, my husband loved it. We could have come to blows over whether it worked or not.

And then there were the Blue Points, served on the half shell with a julienne of cucumber and tiny quivery cubes of gelatin made from champagne mignonette. The visuals were stunning, and the accompaniments let the fresh taste of the oysters shine through.

Rectangles of blackened tuna, soft as butter, were arranged with a Japanese seaweed salad and a brush stroke of mango lemon sauce, which was fruity rather than sweet.

Three enormous scallops "dusted" with pulverized portobello mushrooms (trend alert!) to add just a hint of flavor were the most spectacular of starters, served on a bed of sweet corn with bits of pancetta.

As for the fish, it was impeccably fresh and presented beautifully, except for those baby vegetables. Chef Gomez knows that really fresh fish doesn't need to be overwhelmed with other flavors, including salt. Sea bass, white, flaky and meaty had notes of lemon and thyme. The thick fillet lay near a piping of truffled whipped potatoes.

The mahi-mahi was even better, with a crust of macadamia nuts, rice and a lovely Thai coconut sauce sparked with citrus.

For a restaurant this pricey, the Hyatt has a surprisingly unambitious (but on the whole, reasonably priced) wine list. Maybe the businessmen staying at the Hyatt are more interested in mixed drinks.

One thing that Pisces offers that no other seafood restaurant has is the best view in the city. The dining room is on the top floor. If you're lucky, you'll be having dinner as day fades into night. It's pretty spectacular.

The restaurant has been renovated since I was last there, but I didn't notice much difference. The split level room is still handsome and very contemporary, but somewhat cold (both literally and figuratively; even the hostess was complaining about the temperature). The biggest change I noticed was that the white tablecloths are now black.

It struck me that the service was better this visit. There were lots of hands to remove dishes, fill water glasses and bring bread without our asking when the basket was almost empty. I do have one minor complaint. I was the one who ordered the wine this time (I don't always), but the person who brought it still poured some for my husband to taste. On the other hand, my daughter asked for the check, and our waiter brought it to her without hesitation.


Address: Hyatt Regency Hotel, 300 Light St., Inner Harbor

Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only; brunch and dinner Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $9-$14; entrees, $27-$57

Call: 410-605-2835

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

Food** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

Service*** ( 3 STARS)

Atmosphere*** ( 3 STARS)

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