Polo Grill, Doubletree Inn at the Colonnade, 4 W. University Parkway, (410) 235-8200. Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $6.95-$11.95; entrees, $16.95-$35.95.***
Here's a quiz for you. What Baltimore restaurant dares to charge $5.95 for a wedge of iceberg lettuce with chopped tomatoes and onions in blue cheese dressing? And justifies it with the motto "celebrating the spirit of American cuisine"?
When you're the Polo Grill you can get away with such frivolities because the food, on the whole, is imaginative and good; the service is superb; and you can't beat the atmosphere if you're looking for sheer comfort over cutting-edge style.
The only real complaint I've heard about the Polo Grill over the years is that it's noisy. That's partly because the dining room is usually filled to capacity. But this time -- busy as the Polo Grill was -- noise for some reason simply wasn't a factor.
It's a luxurious dining room in a traditional, masculine sort of way: Ralph Lauren's idea of an old boys' club. The deep-green walls are hung with hunting prints. Glossy natural wood, mirrors, gilt, paisley accents and extravagant dried-flower arrangements add richness and depth to the large, multilevel space. There isn't an uncomfortable seat in the house, but I particularly like the cushiony banquettes set back in little mirrored alcoves.
While the Polo Grill is a special-occasion restaurant par excellence, a surprising number of people turn up dressed more casually than you might think. There's something about it that's different from other luxe restaurants in the area. Even though only the very rich can treat the Polo Grill as a neighborhood hangout, that's what it seems to be for a number of its customers.
The food, as I said, can be very good; but what's most memorable about the Polo Grill is the superbly professional service. The longer I do this job the more I appreciate how difficult it must be for a restaurant owner to find waiters and waitresses who quietly and intelligently tell customers about the food, take their order and get it in front of them competently, as well as secondary staff who keep their water glasses filled and remove dirty dishes. All without making their presence felt.
About the only way you'll go wrong at the Polo Grill is to choose too elaborate a dish. Sometimes the kitchen just can't help itself: A first course of perfectly charred, just barely cooked scallops would have been wonderful if it involved nothing more than the scallops. OK, their bed of glass noodles was fine; but chopped vegetable salsa seemed a bit much -- one or the other would have been enough. And the "spicy sweet-n-sour sauce" set the dish over the top; it tasted like Catalina dressing.
An artichoke taken apart and arranged on the plate, drizzled with vinaigrette and sprinkled with capers, onions and grated cheese was perfect as was. But for some reason the heart was topped with chickpea puree.
One tossed salad included arugula, watercress, pear, melon, tomatoes, fennel, walnuts, Asiago cheese, roasted peppers and walnuts.
But then there are appetizers like a single, crisply golden soft-shell crab. You wonder how you ever ate soft-shells without fresh corn relish or tomato vinaigrette.
And the decadently delicious soup. Talk about simplicity of ingredients: cream, white lumps of crab meat, corn and more cream.
Sometimes the Polo Grill's food reaches perfection. Such a dish is the pan-seared rockfish, fresher than fresh, a lovely, thick piece arrayed with snowy lumps of crab and surrounded by a silky lemon beurre blanc. A few emerald-green peas, a mince of tomatoes, capers and mushrooms add color and bright bursts of flavor. This gets my vote as Seafood Dish of the Year.
Not all our entrees reached these heights. A thick swordfish steak was just as fresh, just as perfectly cooked. But it was served with mashed potatoes flavored with horseradish; grilled portobello mushrooms, peppers and onions; and an intensely flavored brown sauce. Creative, yes -- they just would have worked better with beef than fish.
You could ask them to hold the swordfish and substitute the gloriously thick New York strip steak, pink and juicy, but then you would miss the crisp shoestring potatoes and buttery sauteed mushrooms that come with the beef. Fat, meaty lamp chops get the same treatment, with the addition of a sweet black currant and pomegranate seed sauce that I could have done without.
The Polo Grill delights in tempting you with desserts that sound so good you order them even when you don't have room. Some sound -- and look -- better than they taste, like a white chocolate banana cream pie. Lots of calories, not much flavor. Others, like the apple strudel with ice cream and cinnamon vanilla sauce, are worth skipping those last few shoestring potatoes for. Then you'll have room for the fragile pastry enclosing a sensationally good filling of apples and raisins. In this last category also fall the Polo Grill's creme brulee and the various flavors of homemade ice cream and sorbet.
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