My husband and I had not been to Tio Pepe in five years, mainly because our attempts to make Saturday night reservations were inevitably met with a response along the lines of, "We can seat you before 5:30 or after 9." For us, that was either too early or too late.
Last week, we tried making a Sunday night reservation. No problem.
Arriving at 7 p.m., when we had reservations, we waited less than five minutes before being shown to our table. Surprisingly, Tio's was as bustling on this Sunday night as we had remembered it on earlier Saturday nights. Indeed, it was so enjoyably full of life it was easy to forget that another work week was just hours away.
Ironically, our waiter said that this Sunday night was slower than usual, even though the place was practically full. He commiserated with us on the difficulty of getting dinner-hour reservations on Saturdays, but added, "There's a reason people keep coming back."
We settled in at our smallish table in a back room and watched our waiter debone several orders of Dover sole for an adjacent party. He apologized that it would be a few minutes before he could take our orders.
No problem. At least we knew we weren't being ignored and that he wasn't hurrying through a tedious task. As we waited, we perused the menu, which made so many offerings sound so good that both my husband and I had a difficult time deciding what not to have.
After some discussion, I settled on a traditional starter, shrimp marinated in garlic ($7.25); he, hot artichoke hearts with hollandaise sauce ($5.25). Both were perfect. My seven large shrimp in a rich brown sauce had a delightful hint of garlic, not the overwhelming assault this dish can sometimes have.
My husband's four perfect artichokes were lightly covered with hollandaise; the taste was so tantalizing that it was difficult to eat slowly.
We shared a Special Salad ($3.75), ordered because of the interesting combination of ingredients -- romaine, tomatoes, beets, olives, watercress and more artichokes with a vinaigrette dressing. The dominant tastes were the flavorful tomatoes and the superlative dressing; the other items added pleasant tastes, which changed from bite to bite. One off note: It was a bit salty.
Yet, the best was still to come.
I was in the mood for beef; Tournedos Tio Pepe ($18.75) proved to be a perfect selection. The three -- yes, three -- large filets were topped with a reduced sherry and mushroom sauce. The beef was tender. Not melt-in-your-mouth tender, but more tender than many steaks we've had in Baltimore. One of these filets was more than enough.
My husband, captivated by the earlier deboning and attendant tableside preparation, picked the Dover Sole ($19.75). It, too, was good, with a mellow flavor and absolutely no bones. It did seem to lack, however, that almost sweet edge I associate with this fish at its best.
The sole was served with a scoop of delicious spinach and a peeled, boiled potato. It also came with the same sherry-mushroom sauce, which went just as well with the fish as with the beef.
Our entrees were served with tender-crisp (almost too tender-crisp) green beans and a excellent medley of zucchini, peas and onions.
We found desserts a bit disappointing, at least in that their taste did not live up to their superb looks. My almond and whipped cream cake roll ($4) was no more than pleasant; my husband's chocolate mousse cake roll ($4) had little flavor, totally lacking in that sinful richness chocolate mousse should have.
Our waiter had prepared both entree plates at tableside -- mine heating over a blue flame while he deboned the sole. It was a lovely ceremony and gave meaning to the menu's statement that the staff strives for "a mood to make dining at Tio Pepe a memorable occasion."
And it was memorable. While the food is very good, it was no better than what we've had at other Spanish restaurants in Baltimore. The service was, however, superb.
Add in the lively and gracious subterranean atmosphere -- several rooms of white-washed stone walls with arched doorways, Spanish decorations, silver tablewear and beautiful flowers on every table -- and the "whole," is, indeed, greater than the sum of all its parts.
In all, with two coffees at $1.25 each, two drinks and a $23 bottle of wine, our tab was about $100. Remove the drinks and the wine, however, and the tab would have been $70. Not bad for a memorable occasion.
The Pepe Restaurante 10 E. Franklin St. 539-4675
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.