The Inn Crowd
Brightons Orangerie Offers Everything, Except an Excuse to Go to a Hotel Restaurant
Listen, if you’re fooling around with a rich married guy, I’ve got the perfect restaurant for you: Brightons Orangerie at the Harbor Court Hotel. You can depend on nobody you know seeing you, and the food, service, and atmosphere are all top-notch. Truth be told, you should really be setting your sights on Hampton’s, Brightons’ even more expensive sister restaurant (and Brightons is plenty expensive, believe me).
And who other than cheaters goes to fancy hotel restaurants in their own town? Pretty places like Brightons are where businesspeople do business, entertaining their clients or subduing their subordinates. Not too long ago, regular folks dined more often in hotel restaurants—people are always doing it in short stories and movies. But even if you never go to the vaguely maiden-auntish Brightons, with its chandeliers, pretty chairs, and semi-brilliant harbor views, you should be happy that it’s such a swell place. It’s like the pride you take in a symphony orchestra that you never see, someplace to secure the tax base and impress the tourists.
The very nice thing about Brightons, and the thing that very nearly compels a visit from even noncheating natives, is its menu’s commitment to showing off Chesapeake cuisine: rockfish and crab cakes, of course, but snapping turtle soup, too. The turtle soup ($9), made from what the menu reassuringly indicates is farm-raised snapping turtle, is deliciously savory and comes across, to the uninitiated, like an aromatic seafood-tomato soup. Splashed with sherry and laced with cream, it’s simmered with fresh sage, chunked with hard-boiled egg and outfitted with about as much turtle meat as anyone would want before fear-factor sets in.
Shifting now from reptile to amphibian, Brightons’ pan-fried frogs’ legs ($11) deserve a try, too. At Brightons, they get the let’s-pretend-it’s-chicken treatment, a dusting in dried cornmeal, followed by a quick pan fry. The result was something surprisingly delicate, a coating that wanted a bit more salt and pepper, but tender and juicy, if not intrinsically flavorful meat, which means, ultimately, that frog’s legs don’t so much taste like chicken as they taste like not much of anything at all. Chilled cucumber-ginger soup ($6), laced with olive oil, comes to full expressive life when you spoon in bits of the ice-cold roasted red pepper granité that arrives in an adjacent cordial glass, a fillip of presentation that succeeds because it actually works.
A champion appetizer is the smoked chicken liver crostini ($7), broad slices of seasoned and toasted bread slathered with a spread of robust chicken liver. Smoking the livers elevated their inherent flavor but didn’t overpower them with foreign taste. But what made this really spectacular were the accompanying honey-onion compote and fresh sorrel, morsels of which you spoon on top of the crostini, which you then devour. Heavenly.
A chicken entrée succeeded in every way. Buttery, slightly smoky flavor permeated every bite of a tea-smoked crispy-skinned Springfield Farm chicken breast ($23), which was chopped down into manageable pieces (always beware the breast intact) and flattered by a homemade buttermilk biscuit, topped with orange jam and delectable grilled baby fennel.
Brightons’ Chesapeake surf and turf ($34) combines a grilled petit fillet of beef with a jumbo lump crab cake, and accompanies them with a horseradish cake, perfectly handled asparagus, and roasted fennel-beet remoulade. The crab cake makes no “all-lump” claims, and there’s ample evidence of what looks like claw meat. I’m fine with this. The lesser meats add texture and flavor, and this crab cake was pleasantly dense, flecked with fresh herbs and Old Bay-free. The steak was absurdly tender and intelligently seasoned. The cornmeal breading that failed to ignite the frogs’ legs didn’t do any favors either for a fried rockfish ($24), the evening’s only real disappointment. An excess of fennel-beet remoulade lent an offish color to the entrée; the fish itself was too dry, lacking in wild flavor. And the accompanying shrimp were watery.
Brightons is impressive for its ambitiously designed spring menu, its flair for presentation, the quality of its preparations, and its overall professionalism. It never feels like anything but a fancy hotel restaurant, though, so the challenge for most of us might remain trying to think of occasions to be taken there.