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Jeffrey Crise likes to play with his food. The Columbia Hotel's new executive chef will set a triangle of corn bread on edge to make a plate look more intriguing, or add bright red tortilla chips to enliven a crab "cheese cake" appetizer, or tower mashed potatoes on top of half a baked potato and stick a waffle fry in them to create really tall food.

The results, no matter how playful, are appetizing-looking and delicious. Crise starts with big white plates and edges his creations with a spangling of chopped parsley. For a four-star starter, he arranges three gigantic shrimp, tails up, on a pool of mustardy remoulade. They have a delicate, spiky-crisp coating a la Michel Richard (for those who remember Richard's restaurant Citronelle).

Crise stuffs won tons with flavorful strips of tender roasted chicken and lays them on a Japanese-inspired seaweed salad edged with a chili-sparked pesto. His crab cheesecake appetizer, the one mentioned above, is a creamy delight -- a warm wedge that tastes something like quiche, only more delicate.

My only question is why Crise labels his food "regional American" when the menu has so many Asian, Italian and south-of-the-border accents. But I suppose you could argue that eclecticism defines regional American food these days.

Crise has already made a name for himself in this area. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he started off working at private clubs, including L'Hirondelle and Elkridge. In the early '90s, he was chef-owner of Baltimore's Ambassador Dining Room before it became an Indian restaurant. He later moved on to Hunters' Lodge in Ellicott City and put it on the map with his fine cooking.

He finds himself now in a gracious setting at Waterside that seems appropriate for this beautiful food. The dining room is serene, with lots of windows (and a view of the water in daylight), dark green walls, fresh flowers on the formally set tables and comfortable chairs. My one complaint concerns the empty buffet table. It was covered in white linen with a huge flower arrangement on top; but it reminded me that this isn't a luxe restaurant but a hotel dining room getting ready, I suppose, for tomorrow's breakfast buffet.

But back to the food. If I had to pick one thing that epitomizes what I like about Crise's cooking, it would be the side order of asparagus. With all his fanciful entrees, he knows when to let perfect, slim, green stalks of asparagus speak for themselves. They are lightly steamed and graced with nothing more than a little melted butter -- which is all they need.

This is the same kitchen that produces a 10-ounce lobster tail, half removed from its shell and crisply fried. This may seem like a sacrilegious thing to do to lobster, but it actually keeps the snowy white meat deliciously moist. It lies on a bed of buckwheat noodles and seaweed salad with an edging of fiery peanut sauce.

Crise chars a generous round of beef tenderloin so that it retains a juicy pink center, drizzles it with a darkly flavorful sauce and accompanies it with lightly cooked Swiss chard and sauteed mushrooms. But the dish we swooned over was the crab cake, bursting with sweet lumps of crab, delicate and irregularly shaped and perfectly seasoned. This came with a triangle of corn bread and warm spinach with a faintly sweet-sour dressing and snippets of pancetta.

Desserts are every bit as beautiful as the rest of the meal, but ours weren't quite so perfect. The cookie crust of a lemon tart was a bit tough, and chocolate bread pudding was a little dry at its edges. (No complaints about the seductively soft creme brulee, though.) We weren't too unhappy about the misses: The rest of the meal had been so good and we had eaten so much, we were just as happy simply to look at our desserts.


Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: Sheraton Columbia Hotel, 10207 Wincopin Circle, Columbia

Hours: Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $7-$8, entrees: $15-$29.

Call: 410-730-3900

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 02/22/99

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