New chef polishing up the Brass Elephant

Sometimes restaurants have to reinvent themselves to stay in the public eye. We haven't heard much from the Brass Elephant lately, but now with a couple of changes this Mount Vernon fixture has gotten a new lease on life.

The most obvious change is the Brass Elephant's new executive chef, Andrew Maggitti. He's created an entertaining menu of mostly Italian dishes (the Maryland crab cakes being the obvious exception). Change is good. For years, the restaurant has been serving food variously described as traditional American, New American and fusion. But its beginnings were northern Italian, and it's nice to see house-made pastas and risottos back on the menu.

No review of the Brass Elephant - so named because of the elephant-head sconces in the hall - could fail to mention the looks of the place. Once, it was the most beautiful restaurant in Baltimore, with Tiffany skylights, gilt mirrors, dark woods, glittering chandeliers and ornate marble mantelpieces. It's still handsome, but the setting doesn't seem as elegant as it once did. Comparatively minor details are magnified because a meal here has become quite an expensive night out. Doesn't it strike you as odd, for instance, that the amuse-bouches arrive on saucers, like at a child's tea party, not on small plates? More generally, the flatware and glassware simply don't have the refinement they should.

The service, too, seems a little casual for these beautiful rooms and this good food. There is an elaborate ceremony of presenting hot olive oil with your choice of garlic, grated cheese or herbs; but the bread is nowhere to be found, and when it arrives, it tastes stale.

I haven't had nicer service, but I have had better. The missteps are small - entrees that arrive before there are forks to eat them with, hot water for tea that comes long before the tea bags - but there are more than I would expect at a restaurant where almost all of the entrees cost $30 or more. Are these prices becoming the norm for nice restaurants? I'm beginning to think so.

Maggitti's cooking, however, lives up to the setting and service as it should be, not as it is. A specialty of his is risotto, and it's a testament to his skill that the braised lamb shank mushroom risotto outshines the tender, pink-centered rack of lamb chops on the "Duo of Colorado Lamb."

A sauce of garlic and parsley enhances baby clams in their shell, prettily presented with a little swirl of capellini and a garlic toast. An elaboration of this very appealing concept comes with house-made spinach linguine, various shellfish, an understated, endearing tomato sauce and fresh basil.

Maggitti has his whimsical moments. Four different "carpaccios" are offered, including one made from roasted butternut squash. Thin slices of a memorable smoked salmon are arranged to look like a classic carpaccio, with an unexpected accent of fennel and an elegant little dill potato salad.

Sometimes the whimsy doesn't pan out. The parmesan-crusted rockfish is outstanding, but it would be outstanding without the bridge of fried pasta that suspends it above the thick minestrone. The soup serves as its accompanying vegetable.

The most subtly distinctive dish of the evening is the potato gnocchi strewn with a mix of spinach, baby carrots, haricots verts, cremini mushrooms and parmesan cheese. The $27 price tag is also distinctive.

Maggitti can keep things interesting without going over the top. He swirls a creamy tomato bisque around a center of sun-dried tomatoes. Ivory scallops with crisp bits of fried leek lie on a red-onion marmalade, with a saffron-tinged butter sauce.

Desserts are crowd pleasers, from the mousselike dark chocolate royale cake to the warm apple and pecan strudel with caramel sauce and ice cream that you simply won't be able to share. A zuppa inglese with spiced poundcake, chocolate and lemon custards, almond cream, Grand Marnier and berries could be simplified without ill effect - it has one or two too many flavors going on - but all of it will get eaten.

Having Maggitti in the kitchen is a good start to bringing back the Brass Elephant's glory days. If he decides to update the wine list, that will be even better. If these beautiful rooms get - not a facelift, let's say a facial - then he'll have to stay on his toes to live up to the splendor that will be the Brass Elephant once again.

Food *** (3 stars)
Service ** (2 1/2 stars)
Atmosphere ** (2 1/2 stars)
Address: 924 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner; for brunch on Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$11; entrees, $27-$36
Call: 410-547-8480, brasselephant.com


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