The restaurant was named for a massive light fixture -- suspended in the middle of the main dining room -- that the owners thought was a classic 1960s Sputnik chandelier, named for the Russian spacecraft that was the first man-made object to orbit Earth. The 180-light chrome chandelier turned out to be an art deco classic instead, but that didn't daunt owners Bill and Maria Buszinski and David Brown. Besides, not much about Crownsville's Sputnik Cafe is as it seems.
The building, tucked behind a florist shop, looks from the outside like a roadhouse. You have to really look for the restaurant as you drive along Generals Highway or you'll miss the funky airplane-esque sign and turn into the neighbors' yard, as I did.
Instead of Harleys and pickups, the parking lot is lined with BMW and Cadillac SUVs and European sedans. Pick your way to the door, past mid-century lawn furniture painted in a medley of designs, and enter through a darkly plush vestibule. Here is another, authentic Sputnik chandelier, and a black deco-style sofa that conjures visions of crystal balls and tarot readings.
Steps away, the dining room is a mod fantasy worthy of "A Clockwork Orange." White and orange plastic chairs surround orange tables. White corrugated metal lines the walls, and orange fringe curtains divide the bullet-shaped space into more intimate sections. There is a bar at one end with retro black and chrome stools under a brilliant aqua ceiling.
And the giant sparkler of a light fixture dominates everything.
"We wanted to open a restaurant that looked like a place we would enjoy and serve the foods we have come to appreciate through our travels," Bill Buszinski said, trying to explain the decor that contrasts with one of the most sophisticated menus in Anne Arundel County.
There's not a mini cheeseburger or crab cake in sight. Buszinski describes the menu as global fusion. It's a 21st-century symphony of bold and contrasting flavors of worldwide inspiration. The food is Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Hawaiian, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian, Caribbean, French, you name it. There's a surprise on every plate and behind every door. And somehow, in this funky little place, it all works, brilliantly at times.
The atmosphere is very laid-back, just what you'd expect at a restaurant where the plastic menu binders sport reproductions of Warhol's soup can and the similarly enclosed, eclectic wine lists are covered in Playboy magazine symbols. The servers, continuing the theme in sparkly orange T-shirts, are enthusiastic and well-informed about the food and the wines.
Dinner begins with warm French rolls, slathered with garlic butter and dusted with black and white sesame seeds. I don't care who makes them, I can't resist them. Tiny stippled balls of butter, echoing the shape of the chandelier, arrive in soy sauce dipping bowls.
The appetizer sampler is a good introduction: chicken and shrimp lumpia (the Philippines), skewers of Kobe beef on buckwheat noodle salad (Japan and Korea), seared ahi tuna salad on Asian coleslaw (Japan and the Pacific Rim) and lettuce wraps (Thailand). Each is a wonderful version.
The sweet and spicy sauce complements the crisp lumpia (the Filipino version of a spring roll); the grilled beef is silken, while the noodles convey just a bite of chili; the tuna is crusted in black sesame seeds, with a gentle sear so slight it could have been painted on; and a bright cilantro flavor sparks the crunch of the romaine lettuce filled with Thai chicken.
There are weekly specials, which often feature items flown in for just those dishes. Lately the emphasis has been on Hawaii, the source of most of the fish on the menu.
In addition to appetizers and main courses, Sputnik also offers a limited selection of small plates, mostly lesser portions of main courses. Our server steered us to the panko-crusted scallops, which she said was her favorite dish.
The woman has good taste: Each crispy shell of spicy bread crumbs encased a large, perfectly cooked sea scallop that contrasted superbly with a spicy plum sauce.
Chef David Brown gives special attention to the presentation of each item on the menu, arranging some on sea-blue plates the shape of a paisley squiggle, others on spaceship table-hugging platters. The food may be almost standing on end, like the slices of duck breast, or shaped into a honeybee hive of tuna tartare. Cocktails arrive in slightly off-kilter glasses.
Even the New York strip steak offers surprises: fried plantains underneath and a goat cheese topping.
The roasted duck enchiladas are a Sputnik Cafe classic, as much for the melt-in-your-mouth pulled duck as for the accompanying white beans with gorgonzola, in which this sweet Italian cheese transforms the lowly legume into truffle-level luxury.
The flourless chocolate cake robed with chocolate ganache tops just about any other version, with the telltale taste of exquisite European chocolate. And the individual cheesecake is as thick as the Carnegie Deli's -- my personal standard -- but studded with mandarin orange slices.
If you haven't sought out this spunky restaurant as an alternative to the Ego Alley crab houses of downtown Annapolis, you have missed a good time, and a giggle.
Sputnik Cafe 1397 Generals Hwy. (Route 178), Crownsville, 410-923-3775. Reservations recommended on weekends. Hours, Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5 to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sundays, 5 to 9 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $12; main courses, $17 to $30. Accessible to handicapped people. www.sputnikcafe.com.