The art of drawing customers

Restaurant: Gertrude's, in the Baltimore Museum of Art, offers diners a less expensive, less traditional menu.

Sunday Gourmet

April 15, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Gertrude's is something of a forgotten restaurant. Not at lunchtime, of course. Museumgoers and staff at nearby Johns Hopkins University keep it busy. And it's a great place to go for afternoon tea. But after three years, the hoopla surrounding cookbook author John Shields' first restaurant has died down. It now has much the same problem as its predecessor, Donna's at the BMA: How do you lure customers on a weeknight without much in the way of a sign and almost no foot traffic? Particularly when your restaurant is not inexpensive.

For one thing, you change the menu; this Gertrude's has done. There are now plenty of entrees for under $15, items like crabmeat quiche, catfish, grilled chicken breast, and several vegetarian platters. And labeling the appetizers "small plates" gives customers permission to order them with a salad, say, for a light supper. Tuesday nights the restaurant has a "10 for $10" special -- 10 entrees priced around $10, a cheap thrill if you don't order a lot of extras. All this is to encourage people to consider Gertrude's their neighborhood eatery, a moderately priced place to go after work when they don't feel like cooking.

A second, probably wise decision is that Gertrude's has toned down the "authentic Chesapeake Bay cuisine" aspect of the menu. Day in and day out, people just aren't eating that way anymore. Fried chicken with all the fixings is now available on Wednesdays and Sundays only. In contrast, you can always get chicken marinated in Vietnamese spices with Asian noodles and grilled vegetables. The starch with your entree is just as likely to be couscous or grapefruit risotto as hush puppies. (And the biscuits have disappeared altogether.)

Still, when shad is in season, you'll find the specials menu offers a traditional Maryland dinner of shad and shad roe. The deliciously oily pink flesh of the fish is only slightly less rich than the meaty roe, so lemon beurre blanc -- and quite a lot of it -- wouldn't be my first choice of sauces; but the dish did have a certain decadence to it. Not so the halibut, firm and white with the mere decorative squiggle of red bell pepper coulis on the plate.

Crab cakes are a specialty here, and three different types are available. The differences are mostly a matter of seasonings. The recipe from Shields' grandmother (she's where he got the name Gertrude's) is an old-fashioned crab cake. If you love modern crab cakes -- where the chef waves a spoonful of filler over lump crab meat the way bartenders apocryphally used to wave the bottle of vermouth over the gin in a martini glass -- you won't be happy. Where's the crab? you'll say. (My favorite crab cakes fall somewhere between the two. )

The hit of the evening, unexpectedly, was a huge pork chop, meaty and juicy, with thin, tart-sweet slices of apple and a bit of rich, dark sauce to complement the snowy flesh.

One of us wanted to start with Gertrude's traditional crab soup, hot, spicy and generous with crab. The waiter brought the rest of us a "Land and Water Feast" for four. The only problem was that we hadn't ordered it, and it cost $5 more than the three appetizers we had told him we were going to share.

Still, this is a handsome platter, with tiny spicy crab cakes and crusty fried oysters, bursting hot and juicy on the tongue. Grilled shrimp come wrapped with Italian bacon and blanketed in fontina cheese. And golden chicken and corn fritters have an old-fashioned guilty-pleasure feeling to them.

Speaking of guilty pleasures, desserts aren't to be missed here. Gertrude's has a seductively soft bread pudding that the waiter aptly described as sex on the plate. The requisite torture-and-death-by-chocolate flourless cake is even more lusciously wicked than most. Those were our two best, although we couldn't complain about a suave apple tart with cinnamon ice cream or a poached pear on a drizzle of mango puree and creme anglaise.

The pace of the meal was leisurely, to say the least, but it was hard to mind because this is such a handsome setting. The dining room is stylish and contemporary, softened with warm, muted colors. With the approach of warmer weather, diners will be able to eat on the terrace in the sculpture garden soon; that alone is almost worth the price of admission.

GERTRUDE'S

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: *** 1/2

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Museum Drive

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday, brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$12.95; main courses, $8.95-$33.50

Call: 410-889-3399

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*

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