** 1/2 Ray's the Classics
8606 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring 301-588-7297
Open: Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to
10 p.m. All major credit cards.
Metro: Silver Spring. Complimentary valet parking. Prices: appetizers $3 to $9, entrees $13.95 to $30.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $65 per person.
There is no "Ray" at Ray's the Classics. But there is a Michael, as in Landrum, the affable guy who took a storefront in Arlington four years ago and turned it into what a lot of us consider to be the best steakhouse in the area, Ray's the Steaks. This summer, he turned his attention to Silver Spring and a beloved address (the former Crisfield restaurant), where he's offering some of those same great steaks on a proudly American menu that Mayberry's Aunt Bee could have written, if only she had learned how to make sausage biscuits and fried chicken from a French-trained chef.
Which brings us to the other reason for the crowds at Ray's the Classics: Michael Hartzer. Not long ago, the 30-year-old chef was second in command at the fashionable Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown, whose namesake is widely regarded as one of the finest chefs in the country. You can only imagine the protege's takes on deviled eggs and rack of lamb.
Don't just take my word for it. Book a table, and taste for yourself. If you care about thoughtful cooking, if you appreciate real value -- if you don't mind being patient as the fledgling restaurant works out its kinks -- Ray's the Classics is where you want to find yourself for dinner.
A gracious host, Landrum has thought of everything to make your stay a pleasant one. The problem of parking is handled by complimentary valet service, and the issue of immediate gratification is addressed with a lovely plate of pickled beets, carrots and green beans, and tangy slices of sourdough-rye bread that a server says was "baked right here." The bread comes with four spreads for slathering, though I'm content to eat my slice plain. Entrees are preceded by a small salad -- the picks are a tangy Caesar, a creamy Waldorf, a biting cress or dandelion greens splashed with a bacon vinaigrette -- an unexpected and old-fashioned gesture that negates ordering a starter.
But don't be so foolish. The "cocktail food" is mostly irresistible. Like his former employer, Hartzer injects a soupcon of whimsy into his cooking. Thus the "devilishly good eggs" find hard-cooked eggs, their yolks removed and the space filled with brassy steak tartare. Scampi baklava reminds me of another of Michel Richard's tricks: using shredded phyllo dough to give shattering crunch to whatever it coats, in this case, fruit-and-nut-filled marinated shrimp. The Greatest Generation is evoked in Hartzer's update on stuffed olives, wherein green olives are filled with a pinch of anchovy, garlic or cheese, packaged in puff pastry and baked to a nice shade of gold. Six bites for three bucks. Such a deal!
The famous Southern cookbook author at my table one night turns up his nose at the biscuits, which are a bit gummy in the center. (I can taste their potential, however, and admire the stab of heat from the bits of andouille that freckle the hearty hors d'oeuvre.) But the same man delights in the kitchen's frying skills, evident in a plate of sweetbreads. Free of grease, with a faint crunch that gives way to custardy centers, the snack is decadent and delicious.
The shared treats call for something festive to drink. Ray's the Classics obliges, in a big way, by devoting a whole section of its wine list to sparkling wines that allow a diner to sip well no matter his or her budget. The gems run from moscato d'asti for $26 to the estate-bottled Champagnes collected by renowned importer Terry Theise, most of them $60 a bottle. The selections also show careful handling; the reds are (stop the presses!) cool to the touch, and many of them are decanted into sleek carafes.