Funny, you'd think it would please me to walk into Tio Pepe and find it half empty, considering all those times I couldn't get a reservation or had to wait an hour when I did have one. But it just made me sad, as though an era had passed without my noticing it.
Then the maitre d' -- about to seat us -- answered the phone, turned his back on us and had a lengthy conversation while we cooled our heels. I felt better. This was Tio Pepe as I remember it.
I was there because so many new places have opened up recently I haven't gotten back to the area's older restaurants as often as I used to. But now those restaurants are closing at an alarming rate. If I don't get to the ones that are left, poof! they may be gone.
That's not the only reason I've been meaning to revisit Tio Pepe, which has been serving Spanish food to Baltimoreans for more than 30 years. I wanted to see how it's been doing since it was closed temporarily in '97 for Health Department violations.
The answer is better than a lot of the new trendy places on a weekday night, but nothing like how it did in its halcyon days.
Tio Pepe's strength is that it doesn't change much to compete with those trendy new places. It's still serving staggeringly rich Continental meals in enormous portions. Not a radicchio leaf or slice of raw tuna to be seen anywhere. The biggest nod to the times is that the specialties of the chef, Emiliano Sanz, now include seven different kinds of fresh fish and only one beef dish.
Still, we're not talking spa cuisine here. The red snapper fillet -- a pound of it, or so it seems -- has buttery bread crumbs on top and a garlic-scented brown sauce. Plump oysters are nestled with crab meat in a champagne sauce that's outrageously rich. Sauces are expertly prepared and often quite wonderful, but there's no sense of restraint in how they're used. Leave your calorie counter at the door.
One of the best dishes here, though, has no sauce at all. This is the roast suckling pig Segovia-style, which as far as I can tell means with well-seasoned black beans on the side. Nothing is done to pretty up this monochromatic plate with its two chunks of pork; but the meat is magnificent, tender and juicy with dark, crackly skin.
More typical, though, is the pheasant Alcantara, which has no more gamey flavor than plump white chicken does. This comes with wild rice, applesauce and a lake of creamy sauce studded with white grapes. The dish has a pleasing comfort-food quality to it, but in this era of artfully decorated plates it, too, looks oddly monochromatic.
Start your meal with as good a gazpacho as you're likely to find this time of year, a smooth puree of tomatoes and other vegetables that taste like summer. Two huge stone crab claws are overpriced as an appetizer at $21.75; they are each big enough for a meal, but the icy-cold meat is no match for blue crab. Their seasoned mayonnaise, though, is good enough to eat by itself.
The same could be said of the dark, truffle-scented sauce that bathes a brochette of tenderloin chunks -- as much meat as I would buy for four people. Some of the pieces are a bit tougher than I expected; some are buttery-tender. All are cooked exactly as ordered. They come with more wild rice and Tio Pepe's jewel-green and just-tender green beans.
When we get to dessert I notice the long cake rolls and other pastries no longer reside in all their splendor on a dessert cart. Some individual slices of the rolls are on display, but it's not as seductive. Perhaps it's for health reasons (all that unrefrigerated whipped cream and pastry cream), or perhaps the restaurant can no longer sell all those desserts in one evening.
We try the chocolate roll filled with whipped cream, as light as it is wickedly rich, and a pine-nut cake, as heavy as it is wickedly rich. But the hit of the evening is Tio Pepe's fabulous baked Alaska for two, which arrives at the table at once hot and cold and flambeed in all its glory: sponge cake, chocolate ice cream and fresh fruit covered in clouds of delicately browned meringue scented with orange liqueur.
How can you not feel celebratory with a dessert like that? Especially in these festive little rooms, where everyone seems to be having a good time. So what if the staff is more attentive to those who seem to be regulars? Dinner is served professionally, even if it's without those little flourishes that would make this a very special evening.
Where: 10 E. Franklin St.
Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, nightly for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6.50-$12.25; main courses, $15.25-$28.75
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *