Gloria Arnold of Arnold & Company wrote me last October. The second paragraph of her letter began, "Three dining rooms, warmed with split wood walls and a cozy country inn decor help to enhance the great food. . . . Steaks are fresh, cut and trimmed to order. . . . The 'Pound Porterhouse' . . . is cut by the local butcher, fresh. . . . The closeness of the Jessup Seafood and Vegetable Market helps insure that only the finest and freshest seafoods and vegetables are used. . . . All soups, sauces, and salads are made fresh daily."
Proximity to the Jessup market sold me. That, and my memory that money and sophistication in the Baltimore-Washington corridor support such lively enterprises in Laurel as Pasta Plus and the Red Hot & Blue Memphis Pit Barbecue. I thought Arnold & Company could be interesting.
We found it several miles south of Route 32, on Route 1, which is Washington Boulevard. Immediately to its north, on the west side of the road, lay Capital Forklift, Dio's and Sam's. A sign over the front door spelled "Arnold." In our hunger, the sign looked beautiful to us.
Pushing open the front door, we read the whiteboard in the entryway: steamed shrimp, beef teriyaki, a special of wahoo, and more. Beyond a second door we heard voices in what, when we entered, we saw was the bar. Deja vu: It looked like one of those restaurants in the national bloodstream, places on strips of highway marked by forklift distributorships and the flags of car lots, where people want steaks, eat big baked potatoes, and promise themselves good desserts. There weren't families with children eating there, so much as couples having a night out.
Non-smoking? Mostly there wasn't a call for non-smoking areas, they said, but maybe we'd like the alcove. On second thought, though, they remembered an open door to the bar in the alcove, and the bar was smoky, so maybe we'd like a table that was kind of by itself. We felt the staff's anxiety to please; our waitress was conscientious throughout the evening.
Eavesdropping on a young man and a waitress nearby singing "Happy Birthday" to the young man's young woman, we broke open a small, warm loaf of bread that had been brought us in a basket, and shared some of the wheat half and some of the white half among ourselves. It was soft and fluffy, like cake.
Skipping Arnold's Ultimate Shrimp Cocktail, a large Bloody Mary topped with a fresh shrimp cocktail ($5.95), and choosing against mushrooms stuffed with smoked oysters ($4.50), we settled on the special half-pound of Cajun steamed shrimp ($6.75), the soup du jour, a Russian peasant soup ($1.95), and escargots served with maitre d' butter ($4.25).
The fresh, tasty shrimp were the small kind, which I like, and spicy. We enjoyed tearing away the shells and dipping the bodies in cocktail sauce. The soup tasted the way canned soup would taste if it were better than it usually is: the celery, carrot, potato and cabbage were uniformly soft and mild, in a bland, natural-tasting, pleasant tomato-colored base. Six somewhat bitter, chewy snails were served in way too much melted butter. Two large cuts of hot, oiled house bread sat to the side.
Dinner salads consisted of cucumber, carrot and red cabbage on drooping lettuces with thick creamy dressings spooned over the top, and chunky croutons made from the house bread.
Our entrees were a special of Cajun-cooked wahoo (a Hawaiian fish, it said; $12.95), crab cakes ($14.95) and steak Arnold ($14.95). The simple wahoo was spicy hot and crusty on the outside, moist and juicy inside. The menu said the two crab cakes were made of backfin; we tended to think not, but the crab was fresh and delightful, and the binding dressing, light and sweet.
Steak Arnold consisted of two good, juicy slices of beef covered with an extraordinary density of uncracked black and green peppercorns (much too much pepper) stirred into a whiskey-flavored brown sauce. Accompanying stuffed baked potatoes were heavy on oil, but essentially tasteless.
Our desserts, slices of cheesecake ($2.50) and French silk pie ($3.50), looked and tasted just made. The cheesecake's texture was smooth, its flavors gentle and creamy. We scowled over the pie's artificial whipped cream, but the chocolate mousse at the core was decidedly, deliciously chocolate.
We came away thinking Arnold & Company a hard-working, old-fashioned neighborhood restaurant that turns out decent Cajun-spiced fish, crab cakes, beef (skip the sauce) and sweets. *
Next: India Grill
Arnold & Company, 10024 Washington Blvd., Laurel, (301) 725-3800
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Saturdays 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sundays from 4 p.m.; light fare 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: American cooking
No-smoking section: No
Wheelchair access: Yes