A rich slice of Old Baltimore fare

The venerable Sunset is a worthy successor to Haussner's

Sunday Gourmet

January 05, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If any restaurant has inherited Haussner's mantle as the quintessential Old Baltimore eating place, it would have to be the Sunset, a Glen Burnie fixture since the '60s. It even has a gilt-framed reclining nude over the bar.

Ah, but there's much more. There isn't quite the profusion of objets d'art and period paintings that Haussner's was famous for, or a giant ball of string, but there is art -- including a portrait of the owners, of course -- and Tiffany-style lamps and etched glass. There's seating for a multitude of people and wonderful veteran waitresses. There's a relish tray, port wine cheese with crackers in cellophane, and as for drinks -- well, this is the time that as a restaurant critic I'm glad I have the word mixologist in my vocabulary. Order an old-fashioned and skip the pinot grigio.

The Sunset even has strawberry shortcake for dessert. Not as famous as Haussner's world famous strawberry shortcake, perhaps, but with the same bright, artificially red glaze. And although my memory is a little hazy, the Sunset's tasted better to me. The sponge cake is very fresh and the winter strawberries actually have some flavor.

The Sunset's menu can't compare in sheer number of dishes to Haussner's, but then who would expect it to? It still runs to several pages, with Maryland seafood predominating, some steaks and chops, and several Italian dishes. If you're a tourist, or maybe even if you're not, you should order the sour beef and dumplings with big chunks of meltingly tender beef swimming in a great lake of spicy brown gravy. The dumplings, of course, are little lumps of lead, but isn't that how they're supposed to be?

Sunset's cream of shrimp soup, a house special, is like the strawberry shortcake. It tastes better than it looks. It has the texture of mashed potatoes -- I personally like soup you can't eat with a fork -- but the flavor is delicate, it isn't oversalted and it contains big chunks of shrimp.

Another house special is the baked stuffed shrimp. You can't fault the huge shrimp or the lump crab stuffing, but they're covered in a gigantic mound of imperial topping, a sort of bechamel sauce, then stuck under the broiler. You have to fight your way through the topping to get to the seafood. A little of it goes a long way; this much goes too far.

The same fat lumps of crab and topping turn up on the Veal a la Sunset. It's a good-news, bad-news proposition: Lumps of crab, good; topping, bad. Chewy breaded veal, bad; asparagus and thin slices of ham on top, good.

Sunset's seafood is very fresh, so something as simple as a rockfish fillet broiled with butter is very satisfying, particularly because it isn't overcooked. Raw oysters, salty sweet from the sea, slip down easily; clams casino are treated with respect: the melted butter, bread crumbs and bacon don't overwhelm them. Stuffed mushroom caps, however, suffer from that imperial topping, which dominates the crab-meat stuffing.

One thing I like a lot about Old Baltimore restaurants is that they understand the importance of side dishes: real whipped potatoes, soft as a cloud; homemade pickled beets and homemade stewed tomatoes.; lima beans and green beans and homemade coleslaw. Two vegetables come with dinners, or you can order an a la carte vegetable like a baked sweet potato or fried eggplant.

If this isn't enough food for you, finish up with the strawberry shortcake, or the pecan bread pudding with rum sauce -- which is made with so much rum you'll need a designated driver. Or you can always go with a chocolate sundae made with soft ice cream and whipped cream.

The Sunset has been making a lot of people happy for a lot of years. It operates on the "If It Ain't Broke" theory of restaurant management, so you won't find Asian fusion dishes on the menu or an extensive list of wines by the glass. But you don't come here when you're feeling au courant. You eat at the Sunset when you want to take a step back in time, when crab meat wasn't a luxury food and waitresses mothered their customers.

Sunset Restaurant

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 625 Greenway, Glen Burnie

Hours: Lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers, $2.75-$9.50; main courses, $14.50-$22.95

Call: 410-768-1417

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

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