Hotel restaurants often get a bad rap. Many are known for boring decor, pricey food and lackadaisical service.
FountainSide at the Doubletree by Hilton in Pikesville fits some of those descriptions — but the service is anything but lazy.
The restaurant and its lounge occupy a large space on the Reisterstown Road side of the Doubletree. We entered through the lobby, finding the space fairly easily, despite the lack of clear signage.
Later we realized that the hotel's side door was actually more convenient to the restaurant, but first-time visitors would have trouble finding that entrance.
The hotel's decor was standard for a mid-range chain — comfortable seating, patterned carpets, nothing too outrageous. That look carried over to the restaurant and lounge, where the tables felt solid and substantial and the chairs were soft, but the space lacked strong personality. We could've been sitting anywhere in America.
FountainSide's menu, however, included a few nods to the Baltimore area. The dining room was about three-quarters full, mostly with quiet solitary diners; we imagined they were all on business trips, a la George Clooney in "Up in the Air." Many were feasting on crab cakes. When in Maryland, do as the Marylanders do.
Around 7 on a rainy Thursday, lounge was a touch more boisterous than the dining room with several small groups chatting over cocktails. We sat in the dining room, but were inspired by the lounge crowd, so we opted to start with bar-friendly food. An order of fried calamari ($8.95) was piping hot, nicely crunchy — and so big it spilled over the edge of the plate.
The calamari was cooked properly — crunchy on the outside, tender in the middle — and came with a chunky marinara sauce for dipping. The squid and its sauce yielded no surprises, but they were a decent example of the dish. It would be a good fit for a few post-work beers.
A grilled ribeye ($32.95), served with a slightly dry baked potato, was less successful. The steak was on the small side, but the real problem was with its preparation. Though it was a consistent thickness, half the steak was medium rare (as requested) while the other half was well done.
It was seasoned properly, but the odd and unfortunate cooking error diminished its overall flavor — and made us especially conscious of the meal's price tag.
The plate's saving grace was a side of lightly steamed asparagus with fresh flavor and captivating color.
Fortunately for out-of-town visitors eager to load up on crab while in Baltimore, FountainSide's take on crab imperial-stuffed shrimp was a good one ($25.95).
Six large butterflied shrimp were cooked until springy then topped with large lumps of crabmeat tossed with imperial sauce. On top, a buttery lemon sauce made the luxurious dish even richer, though it also added just enough acid to balance the flavors.
The shrimp circled a mound of red and green pepper-flecked rice and a sauteed medley of zucchini, squash and red peppers. Neither was a showstopper — the rice was a little dry, the vegetables watery, and both were underseasoned. But neither was unpleasant enough to detract from the main event.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was our waiter. He was busy, juggling numerous tables during our visit, but handled himself like an expert. He checked in with us frequently and had a kind, unhurried demeanor that was very likable. Every request was met with a sincere, "My pleasure," and a nice smile.
A busboy was equally charming as he refilled water glasses and cleared plates.
The kitchen's timing was also on point; our food arrived hot and fresh exactly when we expected it. Not too slowly, not too quickly.
The only drawback, service-wise, was the lack of a wine list. We ended up with glasses of Robert Mondavi merlot ($6) and sauvignon blanc ($6). Serviceable, but like many other elements of the meal, unsurprising.
Doubletree's cookies are part of its hotel shtick, so we jumped at the offer of a cookie sundae ($5.95). The sundae was a good one — vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two large chocolate chip cookies and drizzled with chocolate sauce. Our only complaint: the whole sundae would've been better if the cookies were warm.
Large chain hotel restaurants might not be known for their unusual or unpredictable touches; FountainSide's food and decor did not shock us in any way. But the service — with its care and spot-on timing — was genuinely unexpected.
Like an out of the blue gift, it was the best kind of surprise.
Backstory: Open for nearly five years, FountainSide is tucked inside the Pikesville DoubleTree by Hilton. The restaurant focuses on American standards, along with a few crab-oriented regional dishes. Though the food offers few surprises, the service is top-notch.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: Jumbo shrimp, butterflied and stuffed with crab imperial, show off the sweet flavor of both shellfish. Buttery lemon sauce, drizzled on top, adds just enough acid to the mix.
Where: 1726 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Open: Monday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
[Key: *****: Superlative; ****: Excellent; ***: Very Good; **: Good; *: Promising]Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun