To know Conrad's is to cheer it on. Its owner, Conrad Lindley, is the restaurateur we all want to be, those of us who have ever entertained the fantasy of putting together a small restaurant on a country road. True, Severna Park isn't country. True, few of us contemplate the job for longer than 10 minutes after dinner over a glass of wine. But Mr. Lindley's solitary operation of Conrad's for four years, essentially with one faithful waitress, is as bold and imaginative a performance as a marathon run.
The audacity. The isolation. Vacations? Two weeks in August to paint the walls. Dinners out elsewhere? On occasion, at Jean Louis in Washington, with a friend. Why not move to the city? Why not, he says, go to some land he has near Yachats, on the Oregon coast. I say boring. He says quiet. I say mercy on all of us who are made happier because he's here.
On a recent visit the restaurant looked better than ever. It was an unseasonably warm evening, the door was open, and the view was tranquil, from the simple, clean dining room with a green dado, to the front porch with its glossy red railings. The white tablecloths were immaculate, the wooden chairs comfortable, the mood domestic, personal and affectionate.
Conrad's is to other restaurants what an authentic bed-and-breakfast is to a hotel. One of the three of us, washing his hands after the 30-minute trip down, found in the men's room a book on roses, three cookbooks and a Road and Track magazine. The faint music we heard was interesting. On their way out, a man and woman stopped by the kitchen. To say goodbye? A man in a suit walked around the room to look at the pictures. It's a place where comfort, happiness and good food matter, not clothes and show.
The menu, which listed six appetizers and seven entrees, was supplemented by a half-dozen or so specials. To begin,we ordered the soup du jour -- tomato ($4.95) -- a seafood mousse ($6.95) and escargots ($6.95). It turned out our first courses were best, suggesting that, for the time being, they're where Mr. Lindley is investing his time. Managing as he does without a freezer, and making everything he serves by himself, inevitably, some dishes are more labor-intensive and some are more inventive than others. (One constant is excellent house white bread.)
The tomato soup was no mundane tomato soup, but a rich, handsome liquid flavored with onion and fresh basil, textured with particles of fresh tomato, and ennobled by a good heavy cream. The svelte and cool mousse, altogether different, combined fresh seafood tastes with the lean elegance of a light gelatin, a la the gentlewoman's luncheon of the past.
It was the snails, though, that enraptured us. They weren't the chewy muscles that say, "Here, gorge on butter and garlic." The mounded, small and tender wine-poached escargots lay dark and glistening in a vibrant red wine sauce, next to a couple of fritters, delicious with the sin of pan butters.
The house salad surprised us. I never want sweet dressings on lettuce, but we all were taken with Mr. Lindley's sweet and hot dressing of brown sugar, mustard and vinegar. It coated the fresh greens lightly and put an end to our narrow-mindedness.
One of our main courses, a special, was half a Maine lobster with shrimp ($18.95). Visually masterful in red, pinks and pale blush, it was a composition of shells and cream. In taste, the lobster, like all lobsters taken very many miles away from water, was chewy and ordinary. Why serve a lobster away from Maine? Mr. Lindley points out people love them and they're beautiful.
Both our other entrees held far more meat than most of us anticipate being served these days. On a plate of tender, pink grilled lamb ($16.95), three thick slices of upper lamb leg were so subtle in flavor, none of us would swear the meat was truly lamb. (Enjoyed cold the next day with mustard and sea salt, the meat's high quality became even more obvious.) Our third dish, sliced veal with shiitake mushrooms in cream and sherry ($17.95), was milky and refined, though bland.
Both meats were served with tiny asparagus tips, and all three entrees, with an oblong of potato. Mr. Lindley consistently lists very amiable wines at moderate prices. I'd gladly drink the $20 1987 Rutherford (Jaeger) chardonnay again.
I thought later, to end our meal we should have chosen the pears and Gorgonzola ($6.95) listed among the appetizers. One of my companions enjoyed his strawberries ($3.50), and a whipped chocolate mousse ($3.50) was pleasant, but we found a square of chocolate pate ($3.50) too much of a brick. In season, Conrad's has assembled mascarpone, fresh figs and whipped cream on shortbread spread with strawberry jam. Mr. Conrad, stay where you are or come to the city.
Conrad's, 849 Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd., Severna Park, 544-3328
Hours: Lunch Tuesdays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Accepts: * /- **
Features: New Maryland cuisine