As a North Ender, I rejoiced when Plate World Cuisine opened a few years back. The food was innovative, the staff a pleasure and the décor sleek. Then, in the summer of 2008, executive chef and two-time James Beard House invitee Ryan Blanchard left to revamp the Antlers Hilton downtown.
Though he remained a financial partner, his absence in the kitchen was felt. On my final visit to Plate, I was met with surly management, sheepish staff and inconsistent food.
Last October — nine months before Plate would close for good — Blanchard lured locally lauded chef Jay Gust away from the Ritz Grill to be his sous chef. It seemed a dream team in the making.
Understandably, expectations ran high for a re-energized Judge Baldwin's, Blanchard's first mandate along with better room and banquet service. The Antlers Grille, they told us then, would eventually reopen as a "powerhouse" hotel restaurant. But it's still serving only breakfast, with talk of a full re-opening currently "tabled." And my lofty hopes for JB's may have been a little too high after all.
From the one-sided, all-day menu, we started with 4-ounce samples ($1 each) of each of the brewery's beers. They were much more drinkable than in past years, but with flat finishes and overly malty profiles, not as dynamic as other local brews.
The chemistry was right in Baldwin's Ale and Cheese Soup ($4), a not-too-thick pleaser with a fun popcorn garnish, but needs revisiting in the Fresh Maine Lobster Roll ($13). Lack of seasoning and a generic, greasy hot dog bun diminished the mix of crunchy celery, mayo and lobster chunks. The side of otherwise fine Parmesan-and-chive potato chips arrived seemingly bearing neither garnish. When asked, our server squinted at a few specks of green on a chip and assured us, "It's there."
The scallop salad ($12) — large, warm scallops on a bed of baby spinach and arugula with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta drizzled with a lemon vinaigrette — only works on paper. Though perfectly cooked, the scallops weren't all cleaned, and I had to pull off the inedible abductor muscles. Individually, the flavors were great, but when cheese and seafood met on the same fork — yakity yak, it talked back.
My mahi mahi ($12), with rice and green beans, looked and tasted bland. And while the pepper-seared flatiron steak ($11) proved solid, with buttery mashed potatoes and green beans, it came missing the Bordelaise sauce.
That said, not all is awry at JB's. The calamari ($7) arrived tender and crisply coated, accompanied by a delicious trio of dips: cocktail, chili aioli and a sweet tomato-onion confit. And the desserts were stunning. Fudgy goodness and a ganache coating delighted in the dense, dark chocolate fudge cake, while the chocolate peanut butter torte (both $4) was just as good, lighter and creamy. They're must-gets, especially since the entrées are smallish (though still a steal in hotel dining).
I get that this is ultimately pub food, but it should reflect its chefs' fine-dining prowess. Only time and a potential Antlers Grille resurrection will determine whether Hilton's corporate structure has soured this talented duo's creative juices.