Familiar Fare, Served With Great Spanish Charm


January 22, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Tio Pepe, 10 E. Franklin St., (410) 539-4675. Major credit cards. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $5.75-$10.75; entrees, $14.50-$23.25. ***

In theory, "if it ain't broke" shouldn't apply to eating places.

Competition in the restaurant business is fierce, so you need to keep offering something new to get customers to come back. Besides, it's a trend-driven business; if Buffalo wings are hot, everybody wants to eat Buffalo wings.

And of course, people are more health-conscious these days; they just aren't eating the way they used to 20 years ago. These days you can't offer roast suckling pig and expect anyone to order it.

Yet Tio Pepe keeps on doing the same thing, year after year -- doing it very well, mind you -- and business seems better than ever. Owners die, chefs leave, but the place seems exactly as it was when I first moved to Baltimore. And more people than ever are ordering that roast suckling pig.

People still complain about having to wait for a table when they have a reservation. But it's almost a badge of honor now to have a reservation at Tio Pepe for, say, 7 on a Saturday night and not get seated until almost an hour later -- or whenever. Actually this has never happened to me, but I wouldn't go on a Saturday evening any more than I'd spend New Year's Eve in Times Square.

But back to Tio Pepe. Once you've been seated, you know you'll be waited on with lots of flourishes and great Spanish charm. Your table will be located in one of the endless number of basement rooms -- snug little rooms with whitewashed brick walls, lots of shawls and gaily painted pottery, fresh flowers, handsomely appointed tables placed quite close together. Everyone is having a good time, so you don't mind being seated right next to another table.

Has anything changed about the menu except the prices? People have been ordering Tio Pepe's shrimp in garlic sauce, sole with bananas and hollandaise, and pine nut cake since time began. Extraordinarily rich sauces, heavily seasoned dishes, huge portions and formal table service seem dated at any other restaurant. Tio Pepe carries them off.

Yes, everyone is more sophisticated about wines these days, and Tio Pepe has a respectable wine list. But people go ahead and order the pitcher of sangria anyway.

You might think that over the years the staff at Tio Pepe would recognize me as a restaurant critic, and I'd get preferential treatment. Not so. The maitre d' ignored me when I suggested he seat my husband and myself even though our two guests hadn't arrived.

But as usual, once we did get a table we had a good time.

We started with the suave seafood bisque, full of cream and a touch of sherry. We tried the house specialty, shrimp in garlic sauce, which was exactly the way it always is (you can't say Tio Pepe's kitchen isn't consistent): lots of shrimp, a killer amount of garlic, a sauce that begs to be sopped up with an inordinate amount of bread.

Best of all our first courses -- perhaps the sleeper of the evening -- was chewy-tender squid stuffed with minced veal and ham in an intensely flavored, inky sauce.

If all these sound a bit heavy as starters, and they are, begin with the Tio Pepe special salad with romaine, watercress, tomatoes (rather pale this time of year), artichoke hearts and beets in a vinaigrette sparked with chopped olives.

The roast suckling pig appears on the menu periodically as a special. The presentation is simple. No pigs with apples in their mouths, just big, juicy chunks of flavorful pork and a side dish of excellent black beans. If you want a little greenery with this, have the a la carte spinach sauteed with green grapes and pine nuts, another Tio Pepe specialty.

The roast suckling pig was about as close to regional Spanish cuisine as we got, except for pollo y langosta a la Catalana, a combination of leg and thigh of chicken and lobster meat in a creamy sherry-flavored sauce reminiscent of that seafood bisque.

Much of the menu is Continental food served in enormous portions. You wouldn't, for instance, think of rockfish and crab meat in champagne sauce (another special that evening) as a particularly Spanish dish. The good seafood was mounded high under a devastatingly rich sauce of butter, cream and wine. With it were simple and perfectly cooked green beans. (Tio Pepe was serving fresh vegetables back when that meant a baked potato and an iceberg lettuce salad at most restaurants.)

Pheasant Alcantara is a classic example of what makes Tio Pepe so successful. It sounds exotic, but it has all the virtues of a good chicken and gravy dinner. Tender slices of white meat decorated with green grapes lay in a lake of highly seasoned, winy sauce, and a mountain of wild and long-grain rice. Applesauce comes on the side.

No matter how much people have eaten before, they usually save room for one of the rolled sponge cakes, gooey with custard or laden with whipped cream. The pine nut cake is the most popular, with its spongecake, thick custard and heavy coating of pignolias. But don't overlook the chocolate roll. It's the house specialty, something like a fallen chocolate souffle wrapped around whipped cream. You can also get strawberries and raspberries with a sabayon sauce (basically egg yolks, sugar and wine).

People don't eat egg yolks anymore. Hah. Tell that to Tio Pepe when you want that last-minute reservation some Saturday night.

) Next: Peerce's Plantation

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