Hamilton's in the Admiral Fell Inn is a restaurant that's never quite found itself. The name changed from Savannah to Hamilton's two years ago after chef Cindy Wolf and her husband, Tony Foreman, left, taking their Southern cuisine with them to their new restaurant, Charleston. Since then the kitchen has been run by a succession of good chefs. But Hamilton's food has never captured the public's imagination the way Savannah's did.
Jeffrey Crise is the new man at the helm. Many Baltimoreans know him as the owner of the Ambassador Dining Room in the early '90s, before it became an Indian restaurant. He moved on to the Hunters' Lodge in Ellicott City and made its reputation with his haute American food. Earlier this year he was running the kitchen of the newly renovated Sheraton Columbia Inn.
Now he's brought his signature mix of American dishes with Asian and Mediterranean refinements to Hamilton's. Unfortunately, no one seems to have noticed.
That's too bad, because this restaurant has much to recommend it -- including the setting. Saying that Hamilton's is underground in the hotel's basement does it a disservice; the space has been one of Baltimore's coziest dining rooms since it opened as Savannah.
The low-ceilinged rooms glow with soft, warm lighting. Light woods, comfortable chairs and a neutral color scheme create a relaxed mood, while the tables are generously proportioned and set with snowy-white linen, sparkling glassware and handsome, heavy flatware.
Crise's menu changes with the seasons. It's short, appealing and not inexpensive. Fall is represented by small touches: a pumpkin vinaigrette here, a chestnut spoonbread there. This is an accessible menu; if the "Tandoori Salmon and Turnip Greens With Red Chile Beurre Blanc" sounds a little too high-falutin to you, the "Fiery New York Strip and Buttermilk Onion Rings With Housemade Steak Sauce" (a k a steak and onions) will probably please.
I've been a fan of Crise's food since he was chef-owner of the Ambassador because he starts with good ingredients, takes chances and presents his food thoughtfully. Our meal at Hamilton's had a few more glitches than I would have expected from his kitchen, but there were also some wonderful moments.
The glitches first. I wouldn't have minded the heavy, tasteless little rolls in the bread basket because the herbed focaccia had so much gutsy flavor -- except that one of those rolls was used to create the "Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Apple Sandwich" first course. The silky slice of sauteed goose liver played off the delicate sweetness of the apple slices beautifully, and a garnish of caramelized shallots was inspired. Just dump the roll.
A first-course savory tart combined fat, fresh oysters with leeks and salty bits of pancetta in cream. Ambrosial except for the tough pastry shell.
"McFarland Farms Pheasant and Wheatberry Stuffing" sounded grand, but the stuffing was soggy and dull.
Dishes like the "Szechuan Fried Maine Lobster" made us forget all that. The lobster's presentation was spectacular: The tail was removed from the shell, fried and then arranged artistically on top of the shell. Its crisp golden crust showcased the juicy flavor of the meat, while a fiery bit of peanut sauce added zing. Luscious, creamy risotto and jade-dark Chinese greens rounded off the pretty plate.
The kitchen can produce the classics with just as much success. A rack of lamb was exemplary -- lean and meaty and boldly pink, with a delicate but surprisingly flavorful and intense port demi-glace. The potatoes gratin, creamy and crusty-edged, were the royalty of comfort food. With buttery spinach they were an almost perfect accompaniment to a simple but elegant entree.
Simplicity was best among the first courses, too. Two tender frog's legs, the meat white and delicate, were set off by a "charred onion and tomato marmalade," fresh-tasting with a smoky undercurrent.
Desserts are surprising and pretty to look at. The kitchen's take on a peach tart is to start with a crisp sugar pastry and fill it with a small peach -- barely cooked and just warm. It's not as sweet as a traditional peach tart would be, but has a fine fresh flavor complemented by the spicy sweet cinnamon ice cream.
Banana chocolate bread pudding is also not a dessert for someone with an aggressive sweet tooth, although a pleasingly sugary caramel sauce is a good balance with the pudding. Hazelnut creme brulee didn't have enough caramelized topping, but its smooth creaminess went well with the assortment of berries.
Hamilton's prides itself on its wine list, or I might not even bring up the fact that we ordered one sancerre and were presented with another because it was the only one the restaurant had. It didn't seem to occur to our otherwise excellent waiter that we might not want to discover the substitution for ourselves.
Food: ** 1/2
Where: Admiral Fell Inn, 814 S. Broadway
Hours: Open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$10; main courses, $12-$27
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *