Starters a bright spot at Brightons

The Baltimore Sun

Food **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere *** (3 stars)

Some restaurants can charge almost anything for their food and I won't complain.

Brightons isn't one of them.

Once Brightons was what I thought of as the most beautiful hotel coffee shop in the world. It was the place that served breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, while Harbor Court's main restaurant, the luxe Hampton's, was where you went for very fine dining.

Now that Harbor Court is the InterContinental Harbor Court Hotel, Brightons' pretty space has be come the hotel's main dining room. Hampton's has closed and its dining room is used for private parties.

Anyway, I don't usually start my reviews of high-end restaurants by complaining about prices, and it was my bad for not asking what the specials cost. But really.

The first special was a grilled lollipop pork chop, a beautifully grilled rib chop that would have been even better without the pineapple-strawberry glaze, so sweet it tasted like pineapple up side-down cake topping. The pork chop came with rice intertwined with a few slivered vegetables.

The other was the pasta of the day: smoked salmon, artichoke hearts, spinach, pine nuts, olives and capers over farfalle. The combination packed a lovely punch, but it was smoked salm on, not hummingbird tongues. The farfalle tasted pretty much like the good, boxed De Cecco pasta I use for a quick Friday night supper.

You can imagine my surprise when I got the check to see that the specials cost $32 each -- more than the filet mignon with borde laise sauce on the menu.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I'll move on to the reason you should go to Brightons: This is a very nice place to be. Not hip, mind you. Of the three tables occupied when we arrived, we were by far the youngest guests there.

The central focus of the room is an enormous crystal chandelier, under which is a glass-topped ta ble on a stone-swan base. A spectacular arrangement of foxtail li lies sat on it.

The tables are generously spaced, and the chairs very comfortable. There is so much fabric every where -- the flowery draperies, the buttercup silk moire walls -- that the room is hushed in spite of the marble floors. Most tables have a good view of the harbor. I'm not sure I'd have Mozart on the sound system when there's live music in the lounge next door, but only those with keen ears like my hus band the amateur musician will be bothered by it.

As for the food, the menu is sur prisingly limited for a main res taurant of a downtown hotel; but I didn't mind. Better that than a menu too large for the kitchen to handle.

Local cuisine is represented by the obligatory Maryland crab soup and jumbo lump crab cakes. I didn't try the crab cakes -- there are more innovative dishes on the menu -- but the soup is the classic vegetables in tomato broth. It comes in a small tureen that keeps the soup blazing hot. It seems al most sacrilegious to put such big delicate lumps of crab in such a boldly spiced broth with over cooked vegetables, but this is the soup you've always looked for if you love Maryland-style crab soup.

One of my friends ordered the Sauteed Gulf Red Snapper with roasted spaghetti squash and smoked garlic beurre blanc. The waiter had this interesting com ment to make about it: "I should tell you the red snapper is black grouper tonight."

Well, yes, he should, although maybe he should have phrased it a little differently.

I like to think that each prepara tion is uniquely suited to the fish involved, but that's obviously a fantasy. And the delicate, fresh fill et did very well sauced with the beurre blanc (which wasn't overly smoky or garlicky). But the carda mom-braised duck, with its exotic flavors, couscous accompaniment and dark, winey sauce, was of more interest to me.

The best part of our meal was the appetizers. My favorite, lob ster ravioli, was actually one ten der pasta round filled with minced scallop and lobster meat. The sauce was mostly cream and chanterelle mushrooms, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Another, a Trio of Fire Roasted Peppers, balanced yellow, green and red peppers with a dice of ricotta salata. The jury is still out on its mandarin orange vinaigrette.

Brightons' tuna tartare, prettily served in a martini glass, was decorated with avocado whipped with a touch of wasabi. Crisp curls of fried wonton wrapper were a study in contrasts with the soft fish.

Desserts missed the mark. A s'mores-for-adults concoction proved that homemade isn't al ways better. The homemade gra ham crackers and marshmallows were both too chewy and tough to enjoy. Even the warm, bitter sweet chocolate sauce couldn't rescue the dessert.

An individual pear tart and a bread pudding that could have used a more memorable sauce were just OK.

Those who remember Hampton's wonderful service might be disappointed here, although the staff is nice and very attentive. But small things went awry. I asked for milk instead of cream for my tea and got a pitcher of skim milk. Worse, the other three people were drinking coffee, and the waiter assumed all four of us wanted skim milk when none of us did.

The bread and dirty butter plates stayed on the table even after everything else had been cleared away. I had to pick them up and hand them to the waiter to make them disappear when our desserts arrived.

And worst of all, I had parked in the garage the hotel uses, but apparently doesn't own. After spending $300 for dinner I handed the waiter my ticket to be validated, and he regretfully told me that the hotel only validates if you let a valet park your car. It wasn't his fault, but it didn't make me happy.



InterContinental Harbor Court Hotel, 550 Light St., Inner Harbor


Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Friday and Saturday for afternoon tea, Sunday for brunch


Appetizers, $7-$12; main courses, $18-$31



[Outstanding: Good: Fair or Uneven:

star> Poor:]

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