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Brisk and professional

tasty, too

April 15, 2007|By SAVORY SAM

What do you get if you mash together an upscale sandwich shop with your best friend's living room? You get Rhubarb House, a cafe in downtown Hagerstown that serves up Mediterranean-influenced food in a comfy setting that won't empty your wallet.

Step into the Rhubarb House off Public Square and you know right away it's on the higher end of the sandwich shop spectrum. The long, narrow dining room is decorated in an antique-y style - pressed-tin ceiling panels, wood floor, wood-topped tables, distressed and antiqued wall art, and a massive wooden shelf unit like a fireplace mantel on the side. Small topiaries or flowers in bud vases soften the atmosphere.

Seat yourself. If the room is full, there's a lower dining area ahead on the right. Wherever you sit, there's a feeling of closeness. Tables are small; walkways are narrow. This is a great place to eat with friends and family.

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The Savory Sams shared a lunch recently with a visiting college student. We paraded in and took a table against the wall. Our waitress brought menus and a round of waters in tall glasses.

Service is brisk and professional, if a bit reserved. During busy times, patrons should have patience. But Rhubarb House's wait staff collaborate well and watch out for each other.

The sandwich menu is compact but offers variety - from the classic Reuben and steak-and-cheese and to a grilled chicken Caesar to locally named items such as the Clock Tower (ham, turkey, swiss and coleslaw with Thousand Island dressing on grilled rye) and the Rhubarb Jam (smoked turkey or ham on a biscuit with jam).

The Savory Sam vegetarians did not feel limited. Three sandwiches, two pasta dishes, and most of the appetizers and soups were meatless.

The kitchen knows how to handle fresh vegetables. Onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes are roasted or marinated and served in various combinations with olives, artichokes, strongly flavored cheeses, and other Mediterranean staples. These foods appear in salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes.

Four of us ordered a Rhubarb Caesar salad, a veggie melt and a shrimp-crab chowder.

We split the salad - an immense pile of greens that was still impressive when it came on two plates. The fresh romaine was tossed with walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese and roasted red peppers - a flavorful and colorful mix. A single serving was plenty for four of us.

We also shared the veggie melt, the chowder and the quiche. The veggie melt was a hit with everyone - with plenty of sauted red peppers, onions, mushrooms and spinach with melted mozzarella on pesto-spread focaccia bread. The sandwich was very tasty, with a pleasing edge of balsamic vinegar.

I like my fish soups creamy, rich and thick, and the Rhubarb House's shrimp and crab chowder was nearly there. It was a little thin and didn't have as much seafood as I wanted. The chowder was mild but rich; bits of fresh red pepper and fresh-ground black pepper added to the flavor spectrum.

The Rhubarb House makes a variety of soups, which often sell out during the lunch rush. The daily soup special changes. The cream of crab soup is good. The cream of mushroom soup is outstanding, with its smoky, peppery base and large 'shroom slices. There is also a daily creamy tomato soup, indistinguishable from commercial tomato soup but dressed up nicely with a sprinkling of herbs and Parmesan cheese.

Two skinny bread sticks served with soups offer a crunchy contrast.

The Rhubarb House makes its own desserts, so we capped our lunch with a lemon-raspberry torte. Good choice: The moist, dense cake and raspberry filling were a good flavor combination. The icing was too sweet for us, and we pushed it to the side. But the fresh whipped cream was excellent and more than compensated.

Overall, the Savory Sams found the restaurant professional and pleasant. If we had the occasional quibble, well, we would do it differently in our own kitchen. But there's a lot to like with the well-planned food and comfy dining rooms at Rhubarb House.

Savory Sam is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

Rhubarb House

4 stars (out of 5)

Food: 4 stars

Value: 4 stars

Service: 4 stars

Ambience: 4 stars

Address: 12 Public Square, Hagerstown

Hours: Rhubarb House serves lunch Monday through Friday until 2:30 p.m.; the restaurant opens at 8 a.m. weekdays to serve a continental breakfast.

Prices: Appetizers are $3.95 to $6.95; salads are $5.95 to $7.95; pasta dishes are $6.95; and sandwiches are $5.25 to $7.50.

Phone: 301-733-4399

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