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Just a little something to please everyone


The Cinnamon Tree is northern Baltimore County's forgotten restaurant, which is pretty amazing for a place that seats 185. Not forgotten, perhaps, by the people who live and work around there or guests at the Hunt Valley Inn, but by the rest of us in the metropolitan area. The Oregon Grille and the Milton Inn are the restaurants up that way that get all the attention.

That's going to change with the revamping of the Hunt Valley mall. The new "lifestyle center" will house new restaurants of its own, of course. But the fact that Shawan Road is once again going to be a destination area can't hurt the Cinnamon Tree.

The last time I was there for dinner was probably in the '70s, so long ago that The Sun's library doesn't have a copy of my review. Amazingly, the place looks much the same as I dimly remember it. Not the details, of course. But it's still one large, cavernous room, with a high ceiling and a huge metal sculpture of a tree -- a cinnamon tree, I presume -- in the center of the room.

The dining room has a thin veneer of country decorating (a checkerboard pattern here, a quaint appointment there), but nothing is going to make a space this big seem cozy. Still, it's comfortable, with ample table space and upholstered chairs -- in some cases, wing chairs. At the end of the day, though, the Cinnamon Tree is a mid-range hotel's dining room, and that's what it looks like.

Oddly enough, that's not what the food is like. The dinner menu is surprisingly short in a tidy sort of way, offering a little something for everyone (if you're in the mood for American food with global accents) without attempting too much. The presentation is creative, the ingredients are fine, and the seasonings and sauces have flair. The sophistication of the food doesn't quite go with the unimaginative decor and the friendly, competent but folksy service.

I don't want to make the Cinnamon Tree sound like an undiscovered gem. Folks have been flocking to its champagne brunch for years. And this is an expensive meal if you aren't a businessman on an expense account. The prices make it harder to forgive a cream of crab soup that's not as hot as it should be, even though it's flavored with good sherry, is rich with cream and is loaded with lump crab meat. And we weren't completely happy with an otherwise fine spring roll that was filled with big pieces of shrimp but had a dearth of the promised mango.

One could argue about whether honey butter should be served at dinnertime with good, warm bread or the advisability of putting whipped cream on creme brulee. But there wouldn't be any argument about the portobello tart, a round of puff pastry spilling over with mushrooms in a creamy sauce and topped with crumbled bacon, the plate spangled with chopped parsley.

A shrimp cocktail is charmingly presented on a skewer. The shrimp are large and perfectly cooked, and their seafood sauce has a fresh bite.

The Cinnamon Tree makes a valiant effort to have some entrees under $20. Of course, you're not going to get steak at that price here, and the filet mignon -- the most expensive item on the menu at $26.95 -- is worth splurging on. The fat hunk of tender beef gets a jolt of flavor from its chipotle-basil butter without being overwhelmed by it. With the meat are garlic mashed potatoes, the approximate texture of a cloud -- only the flavorful bits of potato skin keep them from floating off the plate. Vegetables are given a token nod with the "vegetable tart Provencal," actually a slice of eggplant, a slice of squash and a couple of slices of Roma tomato baked together.

"Provencal" makes its appearance again with the fish of the day, a fresh piece of cod with a tomato-black olive relish. It's arranged on broccolini, crisp green beans and rice pilaf. At the lower end of the price spectrum, a Chesapeake Cobb salad bears little resemblance to the Brown Derby original, but that's not a problem. Mammoth lumps of snowy crabmeat spill over smoked salmon, Roma tomatoes, hard-boiled egg quarters, crumbled bacon and romaine lettuce. The creamy dressing seasoned with Old Bay is a worthy accompaniment. (Note to kitchen: skip the baby corn next time.)

Of the two pastas, the more interesting one is the seafood panache, with scallops, shrimp, cod and crawfish tails over penne with a choice of two sauces. Next time I'd go with the roasted garlic Alfredo; the pleasant saffron fennel tomato sauce wasn't as exciting as it sounded.

About the only place the cinnamon theme comes into play is in the desserts. There's a pretty little cinnamon creme brulee, and cinnamon ice cream on the apple pie. The apple pie would have been even better if it hadn't been stuck in the microwave to warm it so the crust got a bit soft, but it spilled over enticingly with apples, walnuts and raisins. The obligatory chocolate death cake is also an option.

The glory days of grand hotel dining rooms are long past. These days, mediocre food at jacked-up prices is the norm, so I never go into a hotel's restaurant with much in the way of expectations. That way I'm not too disappointed. But our meal at the Cinnamon Tree was better than I could have hoped for -- although, yes, it was pricey.

Cinnamon Tree

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Where: Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn, 245 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley

Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$11.95; main courses, $17.95-$26.95

Call: 410-785-7000

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

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