There were moments during a recent dinner when you thought that it could be something more, a real destination restaurant drawing diners beyond its hotel guests. It still might.
Carlos Gomez is the chef, having only recently joined the hotel. It's not entirely clear how much of the current menu is his and how much his predecessor's. But Gomez, formerly the executive chef at the Hilton Trinidad, is a paragon of enthusiasm. This became clear in a brief telephone conversation — a garden is being planned for the hotel's roof, and other changes are on the way, he promises.
Gomez could spin butter into gold and there would still be a fundamental problem with Grille 700, which has managed to live up entirely to its bland, institutional name. The dining room, and the service, are major downers, so much so that they effectively undermine the kitchen's efforts.
I had forgotten that this hotel was designed for easy conversion into a casino. That never happened, but the hotel is stuck with a senseless first-floor plan. The approximate size of a battleship, the main dining room is superficially pretty and well-conditioned but its open seating plan is badly dated. These days, even downscale chain restaurants use half-walls and high-backed banquettes to break up big dining areas. There is other awkwardness. Some diners at Grille 700 get Harbor views, but others look directly into the gift shop. A stuffy lobby separates the Grille 700 from the hotel's bar, the dispiritingly named Kozmo's, which also acts as the restaurant's service bar.
An obstacle course is the last thing you'd wish on the Grille 700 wait staff, which, when we visited, was good natured but green, bordering on the bewildered.
Nothing about the space, or the early interactions with the staff, put anything like confidence in the minds of a diner. That Grille 700's kitchen managed, by the end of meal, to make a persuasive case for its future with Gomez, should be taken as a major upset.
It didn't seem that way at first. The staff has clearly not been trained to clarify the confusingly presented wine list. A basket of warm buttery rolls is served, irrelevantly, with a black olive tapenade, just about the last thing you'd want to spread on them.
Appetizers are a mixed bag. Kataifi crab fritters, coated with crunchy phyllo pastry, and arancini, stuffed rice and truffled blue cheese, are winners. Both are the kind of dramatic appetizers that bring some excitement to the table. The crab fritters are served with a bright carrot ginger cream and fresh corn salsa, which are not only pretty but perfectly apt. Likewise, the arancini turns out to be a deliciously inventive interpretation of that Italian street festival staple, with a lovely balance of subtle truffle and assertive blue cheese in each bite.
Two other appetizers are hopelessly trite. A chilled shrimp "martini" is gimmicky and lame, though it's "gin-spiked" cocktail sauce is not enough to make up for the shrimp's fundamental tastelessness. If there was every any good reason to serve a deconstructed Caesar salad — in which the romaine heart is presented whole — that time has passed. Even it hadn't, it would still a good idea trim off the lettuce's brown tips. But here's the surprise about Grille 700's Not So Classic Caesar — once the lettuce was cut up and mixed in with the garlicky dressing, the salad was a treat.
Entrees were solid across the board. It's a pleasure these days to see fully designed entrees, with the chef having decided which vegetables and starches belong with which meats. This is the best thing about dining at Grille 700.
An adobo skirt steak entree is a delicious and satisfyingly robust triumph of flavorful design, with light yucca fries served on top of nicely seasoned black beans and a downright fiery chipotle cream underpinning tender strips of Roseda Farms steak. It's good to see a local purveyor like Roseda on Grille 700's menu. Gunpowder Farms bison on the menu, too, as short ribs, served with broccolini and a lovely and peppery puree of celery root. Left mostly alone, the bison's natural flavors came though.
There was evidence of good and thoughtful cooking with a breast of chicken, accompanied by pan juices, and served with Firefly Farms blue-cheese risotto and haricots verts, and with a paprika-coated salmon fillet, served with Swiss chard and creamed corn. Any kitchen that can turn out a juicy and flavorful chicken dish is worth knowing. No kitchen can really do much too make farm-raised salmon come alive, though.
A short dessert list is dull, and a vanilla crème brulee ends up tasting like chocolate pudding, and a fruit tart is topped in part, weirdly, by grapes.
It's a transition time for the Marriott. Competition is coming — the Four Seasons hotel will open this fall with high-end name brand restaurant. If Marriott doesn't want to be overshadowed, it will have to figure out how to make dining at Grille 700 a fully pleasurable experience. For now, the kitchen's efforts aren't coming through.
Where: 700 Aliceanna St., Inner Harbor
Hours: Open for daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$15; entrees, $25-$34
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]