Thumbs up, and down: Restaurant: The atmosphere is four-star at the Premium Cinema and its white-cloth bistro, but the food won't win any Oscars; SUNDAY GOURMET


Has anyone noticed that Premium Cinema has dropped its Monday through Thursday ticket prices to $8? That's less than you'll pay at some megaplexes in the area; and no other theater in the area approaches this one for sheer comfort, luxury and lack of small children or talkative teen-agers. (No one under 21 is admitted.)

Not only that, the popcorn is free.

For the price of admission you get a first-run movie, buttery-soft leather seats big enough to curl up and take a nap in, clever tray tables that slide forward to hold your glass of champagne and buttered popcorn, and access to spectacular black- and green-marbled bathrooms filled with fresh flowers.

Oh yes, and you can eat in the bistro. Where most movie theaters have a lobby, Premium has a restaurant.

The bistro has a deco feel to it, like the lobbies of so many great movie palaces of the past. Curved walls and warm cherry wood help soften what could be an intimidating space, while white tablecloths and fresh flowers add a pleasing note of formality. (Not that anyone dresses up here.)

For some reason that completely escapes me, the person who takes reservations is called the concierge. Maybe they just like the sound of the word. In any case, you should call the concierge and make reservations. He'll tell you to plan to get there an hour and a half before the start of the show. On the weekend, you can order and eat in the theater; but you'll have to settle up before the show starts, so you need to be there 45 minutes early.

Notice I've taken a long time to get to the food itself. That's because it's the weakest part of the whole experience. The service is excellent -- you know the waiter isn't going to make you miss the beginning of your movie. And if you tell him you want dessert and coffee at your seats, he's happy to bring them to you there.

The atmosphere is four-star (as long as the movie is good).

But the food? The kitchen just can't quite pull it off.

Take the cheese and fruit plate. Just the thing to have in the theater with a bottle of wine. The cheeses are a good dill havarti and smoked Gouda, but they're served with three slices of pear so unripe they crunch, three slices of a soft Red Delicious apple, some blueberries and a few loose red grapes. A sauce that tastes like straw-berry yogurt comes on the side.

As for a more substantial dinner, the waiter recommends the prime rib. It's grilled by the slice like a steak and has good flavor but is gristly. Alongside are garlicky roast potatoes and mixed vegetables, pedestrian at best.

Chicken satay -- skewers of marinated boneless chicken breast -- for some reason comes on a bed of bow tie pasta, not the rice you'd expect, with lots of peanut sauce. It's a bit too sweet.

Some of the dishes, though, will make you happy. An artichoke and spinach dip is a little less cloyingly rich than usual, and goes very well with tortilla chips. A single crab cake is fine and fat, with a creamy binder and a good amount of crab meat. And you can't go wrong with the Caesar salad.

Desserts are what I've come to think of as standard restaurant offerings: carrot cake, cheesecake, German chocolate cake and tiramisu from some bakery or other. My advice is to request your favorite concession candy, which the waiter will be happy to provide.

It's not bad food, but it could be so much better. And since I'm hooked on Premium Cinema after one visit, and plan to spend many happy evenings in those soft leather seats, I want it to be better. True, you don't have to eat dinner there to go to the movies; but dinner and a show make for a very pleasant -- and adult -- evening out.


Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ****

Where: Premium Cinema next to the Owings Mills Mall

Hours: Open Friday through Sunday for lunch, every day for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $7-11; main courses, $8-$18

Call: 443-394-0065

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

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