Champagne Tony's, the Belvedere, 1 E. Chase St., (410) 347-0888. Open Mondays to Saturdays for dinner only. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $7-$10; entrees, $19-$24. HH1/2
I first ate at Champagne Tony's three years ago, soon after it opened on Light Street. It was an uneven meal, but I applauded chef Pauli Santi's creativity -- even if things didn't always work. When a nice little neighborhood restaurant is turning out ambitious dishes like veal scaloppine in a hazelnut wine sauce and swordfish stuffed with shrimp mousse, you have to give it credit.
Times -- and circumstances -- have changed, and Champagne Tony's is no longer a nice little neighborhood restaurant. It has moved to the Belvedere to become Baltimore's newest big-ticket eating place. The setting is more in tune with the food, but it's hard to be as understanding about missteps when entrees average $21.
The setting is the former John Eager Howard Room, which used to be one of the city's most beautiful dining rooms. It still has great elegance and dignity, with windows stretching to a high ceiling, crystal chandeliers, dark wood columns and paneling, charming murals, potted palms and a harp standing near the magnificent marble fireplace.
The interior designers who redid the room chose to surround the formally set tables not with period furniture but with clean-lined chairs in a cream color -- I can't quite decide whether they work visually, but they certainly are comfortable. What doesn't work is the picture above the mantel, a festively decorated pig drinking a glass of wine. (John Eager Howard's portrait used to hang there.) It's too beautiful a room to poke fun at it.
The menu changes daily, but some dishes are always available, like escargots. Our waiter told us chef Santi would like to take the dish off, presumably because it's not unusual enough, but his regulars won't let him.
And it is a keeper, the snails sauteed with sliced wild mushrooms, tossed with a cognac-scented brown butter sauce and piled in buttery puff pastry. Wild mushrooms were a constant theme throughout this evening's menu; the one soup, for instance, was a dark, intense consomme garnished with wild mushrooms and a few snippets of chives. Too bad it was seasoned with such a heavy hand at the pepper grinder.
Our best starter was a semi-boneless char-grilled quail (although my guest's comment -- "Isn't it dear?" -- set me back a moment). It was so good every morsel of the tiny bird, every bit of the apple and wild mushroom stuffing, every crisp matchstick potato and every drop of the irresistible dark sauce disappeared.
Almost as good was a special that evening, risotto with -- yes -- wild mushrooms. (I'm not sure why Champagne Tony's has specials that aren't on the menu when the menu changes every day, but there you are.) The risotto was creamy and chewy and enticingly seasoned, with a gentle, winy glaze of a sauce.
According to our waiter, game is a specialty of chef Santi's; but the rack of venison's odd-sounding sauce (strawberries and sun-dried tomatoes) made it a hard sell. About as adventuresome as we got was duck roulade -- boned duck with a minced veal stuffing. Alas, the duck was so overcooked it was tough and chewy, and the veal so strongly seasoned with herbs they overwhelmed both the duck and the veal. The wild rice was good, but the "cognac-green apple chutney" was sweet enough to be pie filling.
We also struck out with a classic cioppino. The amount of seafood was generous, including rockfish (unfortunately overcooked), clams and mussels in their shells, squid and shrimp. But the broth with tomato and saffron tasted downright unpleasant -- perhaps the result of too much saffron. (It was prettily garnished with crisp focaccia toasts, though.)
Now the good news: the Black Angus Napoleon, which paired tournedos with portobello mushrooms, was a knockout. The beef was thick, butter-tender, pink and intensely flavorful, gloriously set off by the woodsy flavor of the mushrooms and the suave, wine-infused sauce.
Pale, tender veal scaloppine, lump crab meat and baby asparagus are the classic ingredients for veal Oscar, but instead of being sauced with an overly rich bearnaise, this veal had a delicate sheen of winy, herb-scented sauce. I liked the restraint.
When Champagne Tony's first opened in the Belvedere, customers were expected to have dessert on the 13th floor, in Truffles. I'm sure the view is wonderful, but moving seems like too much trouble. Now the restaurant offers two desserts; if you want more choices you'll have to go upstairs.
One was a chocolate cityscape. It's a clever idea -- a tiny apartment complex built of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse and sprinkled with gold dust. But the reality was gummy, densely chocolate and not as fresh as it should have been. A duet of dainty custards, one spiced with cinnamon and (( cloves, was a better choice.
Some of this meal stands out in my memory -- the quail, for instance, and the beef. Some of it I'd rather forget. If I had to generalize, I'd say this is assertive, rich and complicated food. When it works, which isn't always, it works pretty well. (But by the end of dinner, you may feel very much like that pig above the mantelpiece.)
Next: Treaty of Paris