Coeur de Lion

American, French
$$$$ ($25-$34)
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Editorial Review

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2004

Personality, it's got. It's a Jimmy Cagney of a joint, small but with a sort of strutting bravado that is oddly endearing. It's part brick wine cellar, part conservatory, and maybe even, thanks to its gold-stenciled blue walls, part Peacock Room. The food is classical in technique and occasionally over-the-top in execution. In fact, the place and its human personalities -- French-trained chef Richard Thompson and detail-obsessed drama king maitre d' Ralph Fredericks -- are a perfect match: a theme team.

The Coeur de Lion, tucked away in the Henley Park Hotel, lives by the personality sword and has in its time died by it: Both Thompson and Fredericks, one of Washington's smartest and most hilarious hosts, left the restaurant for a couple of years, and it fell into a respectable but dull semi-slumber. Although the prodigals' return has been overshadowed by recent high-profile restaurant openings, the lag has given them needed time to hone the menu.

The Coeur de Lion was always a romantic's cult favorite. The hotel is a mini-Tudor palace, the sort of place Henry VIII might have built in the back 400 for Anne Boleyn, with hints of battlements and blond marble floors. The two dining rooms could be ruins in a way, with their blasted-clean arches and, visible through the glass ceiling, verdigris-colored lion's heads on the towering walls. There are bits of plush and tapestry, and the zinc-topped bar could (at a stretch) be argued away as armorial steel.

The food has a sort of country-estate tone to it as well. Thompson and his sous-chef wife, Peggy adhere pretty much to the continental hunt-hearty -- quail, Cornish hen, lamb, veal -- and even have a tendency to put cook's-garden garnishes to the seafood. The tuna steak has a jammish tuna compote, the salmon is paired with roasted beets, and the swordfish napoleon (a stack, not a wrap) is made to show its meatiness against a syrupy tomato marmalade.

That sweet-and-meat cycle is a constant in the menu, and may be what makes or breaks it to your taste. Thompson has a sweet tooth, and the cumulative effect of too much sugar, like that of salt, can quickly exhaust the palate. (Oddly, when he leans the other way, toward herbs, he lays back a little too much, even though it's not easy being too green when it comes to seasoning such hearty dishes.) Nor is he much for sweet's other yangs, peppercorns or chilies -- not even salt, though that's no sin.

One night's scallop special in lime-ginger sauce was all but candied -- Key West style gone south. The honey-glazed grilled quail is gamy enough to make the balance point safely, but only if the spiced apple compote is left aside. Even Thompson's superlative foie gras-truffle terrine, a perfect example of how the richness of foie gras can be gracefully harnessed in a silken pyty (and presented as a luxuriously generous slice), is only earthy enough to face down the barest touch of the port-softened dried berries.

That same foie gras terrine is potentially the high point of one of Thompson's signatures, veal en croute, a sort of baby beef Wellington with morels. The whole dish has consistently improved in the past several months, the veal growing more tender and the pastry lighter; but the gaspingly sweet bordelaise sauce continues to cloy, and it all but obliterates the pyty and mushrooms. And neither veal nor pastry had its fair complement of salt.

Beneath the sauces, however, Thompson's technique is strong. The quality of ingredients is prime -- so fine, in fact, that it renders his over-saucing even more regrettable -- and it is ultimately the basics that carry the day. The swordfish is seared but tender; the crab cake clean, light and lumpish, if not striking (both the corn relish and the remoulade seemed hesitant, but that's better than the more frequent sin of brazenness); and a variety of poultry dishes, including pheasant, have been good.

Chicken consomme, a frequent soup du jour, is immaculate clear. The rack of New Zealand lamb is simple but satisfying, with a restrained mustard crusting that in this case balances the port (again, port) sauce, though the lentils could handle more assertive seasoning. Rockfish in a Chardonnay broth is also perfectly cooked, though the broth was wan.

Personality is Coeur de Lion's selling point, and despite its quirks, it very nearly works. A little less jam and a little more jolt, and the restaurant could earn that peacock strut.