By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008
"Where in Washington could you find this?"
My friend has a point. When it comes to engaging restaurant views, the one offered by Indigo Landing in Alexandria is hard to surpass. A diner doesn't even have to turn in his seat to spot the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome in the distance, and waves, sailboats and greenery in the foreground. The airy interior suggests you're eating outdoors, but the real thing -- a table on the wooden deck -- is better. The smell of the grass, the sound of the water, the feel of a light breeze (and, in the interest of full disclosure, the occasional rumble of jets from National Airport overhead) is a mini-vacation from the routine.
The missing ingredient: food that would make you want to return. The Star Restaurant Group, whose interests include Spy City Cafe and Zola in Washington, severed its ties to the waterfront venue last year, after Indigo Landing temporarily closed in the fall. Guest Services Inc., the group's former partner here, now oversees the destination exclusively. The switch doesn't affect the style of the people who greet and seat you (the staff is still friendly, if a little green), but anyone who experienced the restaurant's original menu, featuring updated Southern low country cooking, is likely to pine for the past after trying the new format, launched in March.
The starters appear to have been designed with frat boys, children and tourists in mind. They are big and hint of fun. The best appetizers of the bunch are inspired by chicken fingers: pieces of grouper bound in beer batter and fried to a wispy crunch. "Mojo" wings suggest the birds they came from were on steroids. They're pleasantly kicky and best eaten without the vague coconut dipping sauce that accompanies them. A barge of spicy potato chips sails to the table with a dish of bright orange melted cheese that smacks of a movie theater (that's not a compliment).
Concentrate on the scenery, your table mates and the dining room, with its swirling fans and peaked ceiling. All will help keep your mind off the disappointments -- the dull steak with the oily vegetables, the woody-tasting strawberries in a shortcake parfait, some of the worst fries in memory -- that flow from the kitchen. Indigo's hamburger, outfitted with a grilled bun and colorful garnishes, looks great, but the beef patty has zero flavor. Marginally better: crab cake sliders, sweet with corn and punchy with mustard. But the entree would benefit from more crab and less bun. A spinach salad strewn with dried cranberries, mushroom slices, dabs of goat cheese and mandarin oranges adds up to little savor. The spinach and the mushrooms are dry, and the strawberry dressing is unevenly applied.
Here and there, the restaurant offers welcome touches. There's live music on Wednesday night and at Sunday brunch, and there's a basket of crayons for kids at the host desk. Yet those details can't mask the sad reality, summed up best by a companion who endured the gloppiest cuisine of my visits: Indigo Landing is "a first-class setting with cafeteria food."