- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Much like the remaining contestants on “American Idol,” RT’s Restaurant in Alexandria is all about substance and very little about style. The food is fantastic, while the decorating scheme is forgettable.

The money and care obviously are spent where they should be — on the food and its Creole and Cajun preparation.

For starters, RT’s offers oysters in most imaginable ways, including raw and Bienville. They’re both delicious. Those served raw on the half shell are necessarily and delightfully fresh. Oysters Bienville features smoked ham, crabmeat and oysters (cooked in this case), a trio that meshes very well.

Another nice starter is the steamed New England mussels, cooked in a cream sauce, done with a twist. The cream is not infused with its more usual suspects, white wine and lemon, but carries a refreshing flavor of orange and basil. The serving of mussels is generous, so for those with relatively restrained appetites, a couple of RT’s starters may do the trick.

It would be shame, on the other hand, to miss out on the many great entrees, which are equally delicious, consisting of fresh and well-treated ingredients. (It’s hard to “cheat” or cover up with raw oysters and other seafood.)

The smothered catfish — broiled and topped with shrimp etouffee and served with rice — is a favorite. While the catfish is the main attraction, the dish comes with a generous helping of both etouffee, which is absolutely peppered with shrimp, and rice.

Prices may seem steep at first glance, but first-time customers will be pleasantly surprised at the opulent portions and great quality. It’s essential to arrive very hungry.

The Creole seafood stew, a complex flavor sensation (reflecting Creole’s mixed heritage) including the mandatory peppers and paprika but also featuring saffron and parsley, is packed with shrimp, scallops, crawfish, mussels and fish.

The crawfish etouffee, too, is a spicy treat and is equally generous with its shellfish tails.

RT’s also proves to be a safe bet with its all-lump crab cakes, served with a baked potato. The cakes seemed to be 99 percent crabmeat — no bread crumbs or other fillers — and the rest spices.

While RT’s is a good place to go for a seafood fix, the menu also includes Cajun veal Oscar, spicy pecan-crusted chicken and Cajun T-bone. Appetizers, however, are all seafood, except for a small assortment of salads.

A rich, spicy meal is appropriately concluded with an equally rich, but sweet, dessert, and RT’s doesn’t disappoint in this department, either.

Again, the helpings are bountiful — but sharing is not an option, as that would limit the chance to sample these wonderful treats, all made in-house.

The Key lime pie — as with the lump crab cake — is all substance and no fluff. A very thin layer of crust is topped with a 3-inch layer of Key-lime exquisiteness. The cream on top is neither here nor there.

Bread pudding, baked with pineapple and pecans, may seem too homey to serve at a restaurant, but RT’s does it with skill if not flair. The dish is moist, spicy and just sweet enough. It’s served with whipped cream.

A crowd favorite is the Bananas Foster cake, served with warm caramel sauce and vanilla-bean ice cream. It too is juicy and flavorful, but not too sugary.

As might be clear by now, RT’s food is no lean cuisine. One of the reasons Cajun and Creole food is so succulent — aside from fresh seafood — is the ever-present generous helping of butter along with the seasoning. Several sticks of butter can go into a family recipe for etouffee, for example.

Service at RT’s is wonderful. The staff is reminiscent of old-timey white-coated European waiters: attentive, but not intrusive and certainly not obnoxiously chirpy.

Our glasses were never left empty, and our used plates quickly disappeared, making room for the next round of mouth-watering treats.

The decorating may be lame, but the ambience still has its appeal. This is a neighborhood restaurant with a nice wine and beer list, including the rare Fordham Tavern Ale on tap and Sancerre by the glass.

RT are the initials of owner Ralph Thomas, but the letters could very well stand for “remarkably tasty.” Rolling out of the eatery, our bellies happy, our belts tight, we were completely satisfied, not wanting anything. Well, maybe one thing: an RT’s in our neighborhood.

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