Where 'Continental' can be complimentary

At Rudys' 2900, the food is delectable, the style soothing

Sunday Gourmet

April 13, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

These days to describe a restaurant's food as "Continental" is almost a genteel insult. There's a whiff of pretentiousness about it. You never say "Continental cooking"; it's always "Continental cuisine." What's more, the word implies that the dishes lack the individuality and authenticity of true regional cooking.

The restaurant that serves such food is by definition somewhat fuddy-duddy: When "Conti-nental" isn't followed by "cuisine," it's followed by "classics." As a result, Continental restaurants -- those whose food is inspired by France, Italy and other European countries -- are a dying breed. (We do have new-millennium-style continental restaurants, but the continent is Asia.)

The most notable exception to all this is Rudys' 2900 in Finksburg, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary. Note where the apostrophe in the restaurant's name is. The name comes from its two owners: Rudi Paul, the amiable host, and celebrity chef Rudy Speckamp. Under the direction of Speckamp, the kitchen has kept abreast with the times but remained firmly grounded in the rich sauces and elaborate preparations that got the restaurant where it is today.

Where it is today is highly respected, with a dedicated, somewhat older and -- necessarily -- affluent customer base.

I'm not going to tell you this is an exciting restaurant. That's not so much the fault of the food, some of which is pretty exciting, but because Rudys' is designed to soothe. It's not a high energy restaurant. Visually, the dining rooms seem part of an earlier era: The colors are a soft salmon and green, with flowery wallpaper, wall-to-wall carpeting and captains chairs around well-spaced tables. The rooms are comfortable, pretty, designed to dampen noise, and not nearly as elegant as a restaurant this expensive could be. My guess is that the regulars like it that way, thank you very much.

The service pretty much mirrors the surroundings: comfortable, a little old-fashioned and quite likable.

Over the years Speckamp has kept the food au courant by introducing -- and later discarding -- innovations like heart-healthy dishes and light fare. Nowadays, we aren't so afraid of a little butter, cream or meat. But to keep up with today's tapas craze (or maybe just because this is how people like to eat in 2003), many of the dishes on the current menu come in two sizes: regular and "tasting" (appetizers) or "small plate" (entrees).

Speckamp has enlivened things with a few Asian-inspired dishes. So, for instance, you can get crab spring rolls -- quite an improvement on the shrimp version -- with a bit of Asian slaw. Or salmon marinated in a teriyaki sauce and jazzed up with mango.

He can also make the classics sing, as in the plump breast of pheasant paired with a pheasant and veal sausage. He surrounds them with red cabbage and a fruity, alcoholic sauce.

His lobster pot pie is practically guaranteed to make you sigh with pleasure. The waitress unleashes this decadent dish table-side. First, she removes the puff pastry top and places it on the plate, then spoons out a fat lobster tail with baby root vegetables, then a lovely wash of cream and champagne sauce.

Speckamp likes to play around with the current trend of treating meat two different ways on the same plate. Rosy-rare slices of beef tenderloin are encrusted with mustard seed, then set beside beef short ribs in a glorious slow-cooked gravy. (Rack of lamb and lamb shank are paired in another dish.) Tiny haricots verts and tender cauliflower enliven the plate.

The restaurant's signature dish, grouper with a potato crust, isn't even on the menu, but the waitress will probably mention it to you. The fish comes out moist and fresh-tasting under its cover of crisp shredded potatoes. A pool of red-wine sauce adds an unexpected jolt of color to the plate -- and flavor to the tongue.

The nice thing about ordering any of these entrees in a small size is that you'll have room for one of the appetizers: perhaps a couple of fat sea scallops, given textural contrast by their crunch of ground pistachios, or escargots and artichoke hearts snuggled in a phyllo cup with a bit of aromatic brown sauce. If these don't appeal, the roasted red pepper soup with crab is worth the price of admission.

Speckamp isn't a prima donna about his dining room, which leads to some surprisingly down-home touches. Is this good or bad? I can't quite decide. Russian and blue cheese dressings are offered on the simple green salad as well as vinaigrette. A trio of mashed potatoes is presented family-style for the table, not chosen as the proper accompaniment for a particular dish. (They're flavored with garlic, spinach and gorgonzola, and lobster.)

You probably won't have room for dessert, but take a look at the dessert cart, one of those endearingly old-fashioned features you don't see that much anymore.

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