A Taste of Times Gone By at Sunset Restaurant
Those whose childhoods hearken back to the narcoleptic Eisenhower years will always have a fondness for that era's comfort foods: shrimp cocktail, chicken cacciatore, chopped steak, pickled beets, crème de menthe parfaits. There was an ambiance that accompanied these victuals -- refinement laced with kitsch. With the demise of Haussner's and the planned move of Marconi's, we baby boomers are currently on the lookout for an eatery both staid and outmoded, an icon of days bygone.
My search led me to Sunset Restaurant, where the paintings and mirrors, the Tiffany lamps and etched glass, were a surefire signal that I'd entered a time warp. The lobby, where we had to cool our heels for nearly an hour (having missed our reservation by 10 minutes -- but fair is fair), was reminiscent of a castle in Bavaria. Few castles, however, have a package-goods store attached. We also noticed that exiting diners carried shopping bags instead of doggy bags; we soon discovered why.
Once inside the dining room, we were taken firmly in hand by our wise, kind server. Observant too: Without being intrusive, she noted when our cups or glasses needed refilling, when our plates were empty, when we were ready for the check. She started us off with not one but two complimentary relish trays of tangy port-wine cheese, whipped butter, assorted crackers, pickled onions, crisp celery and carrots, and black and green olives. We ate, we talked, we ate some more. We noted with alarm that we were beginning to feel full.
We passed up the heavy-sounding appetizers (escargots, cream-of-crab soup, marinated herring) in favor of the salads that accompanied all our entrées. Good salads too, except for the predictably bland winter tomato -- a mix of crisp iceberg lettuce, red cabbage, and red onion. The homemade Roquefort dressing, creamy, thick, and heavy with blue-cheese chunks, was worth the extra dollar.
Our friend Raquel had, if not the largest, then certainly the most spectacular dinner of our foursome -- the crab melt (market price; $20.50 on the night we went). Imagine an entire crab imperial -- jumbo lumps and a bit of pimento in a mayonnaise-rich sauce -- atop a toasted English muffin half. Now imagine two. Consider that four of us -- hearty eaters all, spearing forkful after forkful from Raquel's plate -- could only polish off half the serving. The taste was heaven, pure Chesapeake Bay. The side of white slaw was good, but the pickled beets were even better. These purple beauties had never seen the inside of a can or jar, and they were crisp and sweet with the scent of cloves. Beets, I think you'll agree, must be pretty spectacular to be noticed.
C.C. tried Sunset's version of Veal Oscar, dubbed Veal à la Sunset ($18.95). The veal, though breaded, was tender and tasted very fresh. It was topped with thin slices of smoky ham, some of Raquel's imperial crab, and a few unfortunate spears of canned white asparagus. I appreciated the chef's desire to make the asparagus special by using the albino variety, but canned is still canned; some fresh green spears would have set the dish off better.
Maryland fried chicken ($14.95) suited my fancy. The half-bird I was served was nothing fancy, but it was flawlessly fried and nearly grease-free. The accompanying stewed tomatoes were delicious too, a walloping serving with a smoky sweetness. I ate all the tomatoes, but could only manage to finish a juicy chicken thigh.
The prize for size, however, went to Collin's dish, the eggplant parmigiana ($15.50), which came with a side of spaghetti. The serving of eggplant, nearly two inches high, hung off the plate. Collin paled at the sight of all that food, so the rest of us dug in. I liked the light marinara, but C.C. thought the eggplant had been sliced too thickly and wasn't cooked all the way through. (That didn't stop Collin and Raquel from enjoying it, later that week, for several meals.) As we looked at our plates, still mostly full, we understood those shopping bags going out the door.
C.C., mindful of our obligation to at least sample dessert, ordered a tasty crème de menthe parfait ($3.95). We also enjoyed the pecan bread pudding ($3.75) -- served with a warm rum sauce, it was the size of an entire coffee cake and delicious to boot. We managed to make a good-sized dent in the thing. Then, groaning as we rose from the table, we hoisted our shopping bags and rode off out of the Sunset.