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Stylish Red Sky Is a Destination Spot Worth Seeking

By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, June 1, 2006

The building, opposite Laurel Mall, used to house Buddy's Crabs & Ribs. The kitchen was that restaurant's, and the ownership is the same. But Red Sky Steak & Fish House is nothing like Buddy's.

It's a sleek, upscale lounge, with a dozen plasma televisions and seating for more than 100. It's a restaurant, with two dining rooms that hold another 130. It's also the best place to eat in Prince George's County, and with a $45 prime porterhouse anchoring the menu, it can also be the most expensive.

A sibling of the Yellowfin Steak and Fish House in Edgewater and the Big Fish Grille in Crofton, Red Sky opened about a month ago after nearly a year of planning. The decor is downtown-Washington striking. There are vivid red and gold walls. Red "sails" suspended in midair serve as space dividers. Photographs of magnificent red skies line the corridor and punctuate the dining rooms. The high ceilings fade away into blackness, and pendant lights and contractor drop lights, the glass painted red, help set the mood.

But pretty is as pretty does. And here it does quite well.

When was the last time that the hostess came out to hold the door for you? That you got friendly, attentive and largely unobtrusive service in a suburban restaurant? That your appetizer portions were huge and flavorful?

Although most of Red Sky's offerings are standard seafood and steakhouse fare, it's all done exceedingly well under the direction of executive chef Trent Lummus. There is also a moderately priced wine list, with more than 20 selections by the glass.

Manager Bruce Hicks spent years opening and transforming restaurants for Virginia's Great American Restaurants chain, and his service expertise shows. The wait staff is knowledgeable about the food, pleased to offer suggestions and quick to comply with your every request.

In many ways, Red Sky is really two restaurants. The lounge, which hugs the front window and stretches around the corner to include three large communal bar tables and several booths, has its own menu, hours and staff. Although you can easily watch the news or a ballgame on the many televisions, somehow they don't intrude if what you really want is to escape the silent talking heads and sports events.

Many of the appetizers, soups and salads appear on both menus; lighter fare such as sandwiches, hamburgers and sushi are available in the lounge.

Step to the back and enter the first of two separate dining rooms, with white-clothed tables, spacious booths, comfortable chairs and upholstered banquettes.

The dining areas and the menu are patterned after those of big-name national steakhouses -- none of which has ventured into Prince George's. There also are crab specialties -- a Maryland hallmark -- and a long list of starters that are a smart way to build a meal; many are smaller renditions of the main courses.

The crab cake appetizer is flawless: sweet lump crabmeat with absolutely no filler and little binding it together. The giant scallops are wrapped in apple wood-smoked bacon, like tiny filet mignons. The scallops and the bacon are perfectly cooked, barely firm and oh, so rich. Napped gently with chipotle barbecue sauce, they don't need the additional serving of sauce that accompanies them.

Fried calamari is on virtually every restaurant's menu, but the Red Sky version is among the best. The squid is tender, yet wonderfully crisp, and drizzled with a sweet chili glaze. Other appetizers, all steakhouse size, include shrimp or lobster cocktails, lobster tempura, crab and artichoke dip and tuna tartare.

Soups and salads are large, too. The Drunken Blue Crab Soup is about as close to a gumbo as you can get: a deep plate full of spicy vegetable soup with a fistful of jumbo lump crab. The spinach salad fills a dinner plate, featuring luscious ripe strawberries, crisp pine nuts, tart and creamy goat cheese and a rich balsamic vinaigrette, all topped with frizzled onions.

Main dishes include pan-seared mahi-mahi, grilled salmon, rockfish and crab-stuffed flounder. There are crunchy coconut-encrusted shrimp, and jumbo shrimp served in a French rémoulade (which, unlike the New Orleans versions, isn't spicy) over angel hair pasta. In both dishes, the shrimp star, with a briny freshness that makes you remember that shrimp have a taste of their own.

But the big deal of the menu is undoubtedly the prime beef. The kitchen is equipped with the same 1,800-degree broiler you would find at the high-end Ruth's Chris Steak House. And for the steaks, the pricing protocol is the same: It's steak on a plate; sides are extra.

I didn't try the 24-ounce porterhouse, opting for the smaller of two filet mignons, which at eight ounces (and $30) was more than enough. Like all the steaks, the filet was certified Angus, which means it had to meet strict USDA standards. Certified Angus is served at some of the nation's top steakhouses.

Ordered medium rare, my filet was a little more cooked than I would have preferred. The meat was tender, juicy and flavorful, just not as buttery in texture as I'd hoped for. The side dish of garlic mashed potatoes was large enough to share, though I would have preferred more butter and garlic flavor.

Desserts include steakhouse favorites such as cheesecake, crème brûlée and bread pudding, plus a couple of massive chocolate and peanut butter concoctions. They make a sumptuous end to a special meal.

Red Sky has positioned itself as a destination restaurant worthy of birthday and anniversary celebrations, social gatherings and deal-making dinners. Already the lounge is filled with white-collar types on weekday evenings. Larger crowds from Burtonsville to Bowie and Columbia to College Park are sure to follow.

Red Sky Steak & Fish House 14707 Baltimore Ave., Laurel, 301-604-2144,http://www.redskylaurel.com. Lounge hours: 4-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 4 p.m.-midnight Fridays, 2 p.m.-midnight Saturdays, 2-10 p.m. Sundays. In the lounge: appetizers, $6-$12; main courses, $10-$21. Restaurant hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2-9 p.m. Sundays. In the restaurant: appetizers, $6-$15; main courses, $23-$45. Accessible to people with disabilities.

If you have a food-related event or favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis atlewisn@washpost.com.

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