In some ways, it seems unfair to criticize Pisces for what it is: a restaurant that caters to business travelers to whom money is not much of an object. For all I know, that's all it wants to be. The Hyatt Re-gency's upscale dining room is a very good place to relax, have a drink and enjoy a meal at the end of a hard day at somebody else's office. But if you're not on an expense account, you may go into sticker shock when you see the prices.
For these people -- and I count myself among them -- the food and service better be darn near perfect.
The view is. Located on the hotel's 14th floor, Pisces offers a panorama of the Inner Harbor that stretches far beyond Harborplace and the Power Plant. At night, you feel as if you're seeing all of Baltimore at its glittering best.
The long, narrow, split-level dining room is cleverly designed to get a maximum number of tables next to the windows. Its contemporary, comfortable decor isn't memorable except for the little bottle-blue lights that hang above every table. And that's how it should be. Nothing should try to upstage the view.
As you would guess from the name, seafood is the star here. Raw oysters demonstrate their icy charms in three different varieties. You can choose one or mix and match. Crab cakes burst with jumbo lump, and have just enough filler to hold them together and season them lightly. The red pepper remoulade sauce adds an exotic twist to a Maryland classic. The slaw was badly oversalted, but the crab cakes were so good we almost didn't notice.
A fat, white, grilled sea bass fillet offered quieter satisfaction, while enormous scallops were cooked just long enough not to have a jelly-rare center. But with these dishes, the very fresh, well-cooked seafood wasn't spectacular enough to overshadow flaws on the rest of the plate. The sea bass's couscous added nuanced flavors, but the spinach struck only one note -- one too spicy-hot for the mild fish. The jumbo scallops rested on a bed of risotto, perfectly textured but with an unappealing flavor, despite the addition of squash and lobster liquid.
The attentive waiter made only one major slip. He sold us on the grilled swordfish chop as the best seafood on the menu, then had to return to confess that the kitchen had run out. (Understand that this was early evening, and only one other table was occupied.) He was a bit more of a presence at our dinner than I want in a server; but it's a delicate balance, and not all of us felt that way.
More seriously as far as service was concerned, the restaurant never called back to confirm our reservation, although we called twice. (Pisces doesn't open until 4 p.m.; one of my friends left her name and number on the answering machine.)
But back to the food. The menu is limited to nine entrees; three of them involve meat so Pisces isn't strictly a seafood restaurant. The meat itself, like the seafood, is spectacular. If it weren't for the fancy prices, I wouldn't be complaining about oversalted slaw. A Kobe filet was as big as a man's fist, meltingly tender and robustly flavorful -- something you don't always expect in a filet. It came with little dabs of three sorts of mashed potatoes and a dark, winy demiglace. Slices of tender venison, peppery and richly sauced, were balanced with enormous heads-on shrimp, a happy pairing.
Appetizers are fairly straightforward, and I would look no further than the oysters. But you could start with Pisces' one soup, a very fine one. If it contained anything else but cream, jumbo lump crab meat and sherry, I'd be surprised. A Pisces sampler for two to share will give you an idea of what other first courses are available. It offers a piece of salmon, fried calamari, shrimp and scallops -- somewhat uninspired, but on balance a good way to start if you're seafood-hungry.
Desserts are more thrilling than the usual hotel restaurant pastries. There are miniature flans, soft and creamy, intriguingly flavored ice creams and the biggest, fattest summer-flavored berries imaginable. But the piece de resistance is a cross between a hot chocolate souffle and a chocolate cake with a molten center.
Pisces is in a somewhat awkward position when it comes to attracting locals. Other hotel restaurants this expensive do it by offering quiet luxury and pampering service (or big slabs of prime beef and steaks, but that's another story). This isn't the restaurant you go to when you want to propose, for instance. Still, if money isn't an issue, you aren't going to get a better combination of very fresh seafood and a spectacular view of the Inner Harbor anywhere else in Baltimore.
Food: ** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
Where: Hyatt Regency Hotel, 300 Light St., Inner Harbor
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday for dinner only
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$18; main courses, $28-$42
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *