At Alto Plaza, the food and the help have a programmed feel
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Sound check in the AP Room: 65 decibels on non-music nights; conversation is easy
From a distance, Alto Plaza looks like a budget motel on growth hormones. Up close, the sand-colored, three-story, hexagon-shaped, $16 million behemoth in Centreville looks like one of Saddam Hussein's gaudy palaces. And once inside . . . well, why not join me for dinner on the top floor, at a table in the more formal of two dining options here? It's just a quick elevator ride from the ground-floor reception desk next to the bar. A serpentine staircase leads to Alto Plaza's casual restaurant on the second floor.
When I reach what's called the AP Room, the elevator doors open onto an expansive dining room paved with glossy wood floors and dressed with chic little ottomans and outsize booths. An illuminated wall of wine to one side looks promising, and so does the picture window, until a friend and I discover that a seat near the glass captures as much concrete highway as Blue Ridge Mountains. Maybe the food will compensate.
Or maybe not. With few exceptions, the menu of salads and surf and turf is continental, predictable and safe to the core. And the waiter sounds as if he memorized his lines from a corporate playbook. "Welcome to Alto Plaza," he begins. "Here you'll find the finest food money can buy." His spiel includes a claim that the steaks are prime, an adjective that can be applied to less than 2 percent of such cuts in the United States.
A few moments later, the same waiter returns to our table. "Welcome to Alto Plaza," he begins, launching into the same spiel as before.
The rehash doesn't bother me as much as the food that follows does. Caesar salad packs a nice garlic punch, but what resembles packaged grated Parmesan has no place in a restaurant that aspires to sophistication. A ceviche of shrimp, tough squid and fish could double as varnish remover -- it's that tart and that eyelash-curling. I like the creamy slaw with the crab cakes, but not the flat saucers of seafood themselves. As for the rib-eye, the meat is pallid, with an aftertaste that suggests that the slab spent time in a deep-freeze. Prime? I have my doubts.
Another night, another earnest server. This one won't give us a minute alone, however. She checks in seemingly after every bite of food, every sip of water, every shift in our seats. (Down, girl, down!) Mixed greens tossed with roasted corn, the signature salad, is both soggy and sweet, no thanks to a honey dressing that could use a restraining order. Lobster supposedly baked with Gruyere and bechamel comes as a surprise: It's not nearly as awful as the combination reads in print because the sauce is applied with a light hand and is so subtle as to almost not be present. Plus, the lobster has some succulence going for it. At nearly $36, however, it should. On the other hand, I keep slicing into the herb-encrusted lamb, hoping to find a bite of meat that resembles the subject matter, but what tastes like ground twigs on their surface interferes with the hunt.
Most of the entrees come without sides, which is just as well, because the only one I can recommend is a bowl of mashed potatoes, their hominess underscored with a few lumps here and there. Steamed broccoli is all crunch and no flavor, and pan-fried potatoes taste strangely of soy sauce.
I split a flan for dessert. It is dense and rubbery.
Thank goodness for wine.
Things don't improve on the second floor, home to a few tables that ring that big staircase. A casual Latin American menu trots out just about every south-of-the-border dish you can think of, without much success. Pollo asada, fajitas, quesadillas -- the gang's all here, along with skirt steak, paella and a trend that I'd love to see go the way of the rotary phone: wraps. Empanadas are heavy and bready, with only a suggestion of shredded beef in their filling. Tortilla soup with bits of chicken does a great imitation of store-bought beef vegetable soup, only it's saltier than any commercial soup I've ever tasted. Am I tempting fate by ordering that paella? I guess so, because what shows up bears a closer resemblance to an oily Chinese stir-fry than a Spanish classic -- and it needs every drop of juice from the accompanying lemon wedge to give it even a weak pulse. Watery scallops and bland strips of bell pepper only compound the problem. Simple tends to be better in such places, but even the basics are a bust here. Chips are light but greasy, while the black beans smack of a can, and not a very good one. Oddly, these dishes come from a kitchen whose executive chef is Mexican and who previously cooked at Babalu Grill in Baltimore.
"Are you enjoying everything?" a perky waitress asks. I don't have the heart, or the time, to give her an honest assessment, so I return her question with a smile. Mentally, however, I'm reviewing the contents of my cupboards at home -- I'll be hungry when I get back -- and counting my blessings. This meal, like every meal I've had at Alto Plaza, is testing the loyalty and patience of even the most willing of my dining partners.
Alto Plaza, introduced in January by four investors as part of the locally owned Sangria, Inc., isn't a complete "Waterworld." This customer appreciated the free valet parking and the red wine served at the proper cool temperature. Dinner on the third floor includes a decent pianist (Thursday through Saturday) and a jazz trio (following the piano on Saturday). Also, I finished every bite of the tres leches cake, and not just because I barely touched the appetizer and entree that preceded the fluffy and comforting dessert.
If Alto Plaza were a mom and pop operation, you'd never read about it here. Why expend time and space on a bad little place in an exurb? But this restaurant is a million-dollar mess, in desperate need of deep cleaning.