A friend once defined a restaurant critic's job as having to find 9,000 ways to say mediocre. I'm happy to report that wasn't true in 1996.
While we didn't have quite the excitement of a Joy America or a Savannah opening this year, there were some notable additions to the restaurant scene: Sotto Sopra on North Charles Street, Daniel's (formerly Tabrizi's) in Federal Hill, the Cheesecake Factory in Harborplace, Opa! in Canton, the Brewer's Art on North Charles Street, jr. in Bolton Hill and Rothwells in Timonium. We even got a new Ethiopian restaurant, the Blue Nile at North Charles and 21st streets.
I didn't need many synonyms for mediocre at all this year. Of course, a few of the meals I had were downright bad; but let them remain nameless. I'd rather remember the good food.
And good food there was. In fact, I've made a list: the 1996 nominees for the Great Dishes Hall of Fame. Here they are.
1) Rothwells' tender lamb steak grilled over wood with a dark, intense pomegranate sauce. On the side: a creamy risotto studded with bits of acorn squash.
2) In Annapolis, Lewnes' Steakhouse's superb 2-pound porterhouse steak, charred outside, juicy pink inside, sizzling with butter and accompanied by cloudlike mashed potatoes.
3) The Polo Grill's whole red snapper, fried crisp with tender-crisp vegetables and a delicate sweet-sour sauce.
4) Joy America's grilled duck breast, served very rare with an intense, mahogany-colored sauce infused with molasses and ginger.
5) Sotto Sopra's vitello tonnato, a first course. Tissue-thin slices of veal were fanned in a circle, then gilded with a silky sauce of pureed tuna, cream and anchovies.
6) In Columbia, Bangkok Delight's stuffed spaghetti squash. Tender bits of shrimp, scallops and squid in a light, fragrant sauce filled the squash, with a crisply fried curl of flounder on top.
7) Gibby's sweet red pepper soup, creamy and filled with lump crab meat.
8) Harryman House's shrimp chartreuse with grilled eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes, a lovely buttery sauce and sprigs of fresh rosemary.
9) In St. Michaels, 208 Talbot's oysters baked with cream, slivers of prosciutto and pistachios.
10) In Westminster, Chameleon's bread. Hot and soft inside, buttery and crusty on the outside, with just a dusting of coarse salt.
11) And for dessert, Daniel's double chocolate cupcake, actually a fallen souffle baked while you wait.
(Conspicuously missing this year were any fabulous vegetable preparations or salads. They must be out there, but I didn't run into them.)
Don't fret if your Great Dish of the Year isn't included. I just haven't tried it yet. You can let me know about it by faxing me at (410) 783-2519, or writing to Elizabeth Large, Restaurant Critic, Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.
Pub Date: 12/29/96