If the recent closing of Pisces in the Hyatt Regency signaled the end of one kind of expensive hotel dining in Baltimore, then the opening of the Diamond Tavern in the new Hilton Baltimore illustrates the 21st-century model.
In spite of its name, and in spite of its location across from Camden Yards, the Diamond Tavern resembles a sports bar about as much as Twilight resembles the original Dracula. True, there are - oh, I don't know - 20 or 30 flatscreen TVs in all sizes, including tiny ones, both grouped together and scattered around the multi-level dining room. And some are tuned to ESPN as well as CNBC. But the sound is off on all of them, so the effect is something like patterns of interesting moving art.
The room has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the stadium. I can see how it might be fun to have a meal there before a game and people-watch until it's time to find your seats. The contemporary furnishings are impersonal, comfortable and casual. They are also vaguely Asian, so if the American bistro theme doesn't work out, the place can shift smoothly into a Pan-Asian restaurant.
I hate to tell you, but American bistro is the wave of the future. Maybe of the present, now that I think about it, at least in Baltimore. The formula is simple, and I've seen it at several new restaurants recently; I could probably tell you what's on the menu even before I saw it. First of all, the entrees will be limited, heavy on the sure bets. There is always the nod to the local and seasonal, and the casual food is presented with high style. The ranch dressing with the wings is house-made. The mac and cheese has lobster in it. Wines by the glass often hover around $10.
How you feel about gourmet sliders is probably a good gauge of how you'll feel about the New American Bistro and its offerings.
I'm not dissing the Diamond Tavern's sliders, which may well be the best thing on the menu. There are three of them, supposedly made of Kobe beef, with local cheddar, pancetta, pickles and soft, warm rolls. As mini-burgers go, they are absolutely delicious.
The problem is that they are a hard act to follow. The orecchiette with broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and pesto is a possibility, and well worth ordering on its own; but the night we were there, it arrived barely lukewarm. One of the several salads could be a good follow-up, like the Market Salad with greens, candied pecans, dried cherries, cheddar and vinaigrette.
Naturally, there's a crab cake on the menu, but you may feel it's overpriced at $16 as an appetizer, even with the appealing bed of white corn and tangy mustard beurre blanc. Crab, but not lump crab, makes its appearance again in a flavorful tomato-based crab and corn bisque.
Your other choices in the seafood line are salmon and Chilean sea bass, which I sometimes think has replaced flounder stuffed with crab imperial as the most frequently seen fish on a Baltimore restaurant menu. The sea bass tasted more steamed than roasted, but it managed to be both cooked well done and still moist. With it came a very green spinach risotto, heavy on the tarragon.
The other entrees sat and waited for the fish - that's my guess - which is why they were lukewarm. But the short ribs, tender and with just a smidgen of winey sauce, didn't suffer as badly as the somewhat lumpy mashed potatoes. And the token baby carrot, two asparagus spears and cipollini onion were fine at room temperature.
If you didn't mind the temperature of the food, everything was pretty good with the exception of two appetizers. The flash-fried calamari with Old Bay aioli needed less flash and a longer cooking time. They had no crunch and no color. And the Crispy Rock Shrimp were like a Chinese restaurant appetizer, fried and tossed with a very sweet, very fiery Thai chili sauce over crisp rice noodles - one of those dishes you hate yourself in the morning for eating, even though it tastes good, because it has a thousand calories and none of it tastes like real food.
Although entrees are priced under $30 except for a filet, you can run up a hefty bill ordering the substantial appetizers (really small plates), wine from a list that has no bargains and nothing priced under $37, and desserts.
These last aren't the expected, except for a cheesecake. A small chocolate waffle was filled with fudgy sauce, with ice cream on the side, while an apple crisp was a less extravagant but not very interesting choice. I would recommend instead the mixed berries in a cookie shell iced with chocolate.
The question for the Hilton is whether anyone who isn't staying in the hotel will come to eat at the Diamond Tavern. My answer is a tentative yes. It does offer an attractive and extremely convenient alternative to the sports bars around the stadium if you're going to a game and want a decent meal first. But if the format of the Hilton's new restaurant is any indication, today's hotel dining rooms have come to realize they aren't going to be the destination that hotel restaurants once were.
Address: Hilton Baltimore, 401 W. Pratt St.
Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$16, entrees: $12-$35.
Food: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Service: *** ( 3 STARS)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]