LJ's: Over-the-Top, By Just a Pinch
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 24, 2007
No question, LJ's and the Kat Lounge in Hagerstown is plainly handsome, or more accurately, handsomely plain. A simple peaked-roof box painted chocolate brown, it's a deferential stage set that turns the eye inevitably toward the steel-bright kitchen, with only a fireplace, framed mirrors reflecting votive candles and a few elegant birds of paradise in tall, clear vases for supplementary glitter. Two sides are glass -- one facing the parking lot, and the other opening onto outdoor seating.
The table service suggests the same tailored intelligence. Plates are plain white and of various geometric shapes but not so deep as to be antithetical to the use of knife and fork. (Fish dishes are served with correct forks and knives as well, an increasing rarity.) Butter knives are horn-handled, dishes that require chopsticks come with nice wooden sets in their own cradles and water is refilled from long-necked pitchers that eliminate splashing. The menu is printed in a clean and easily readable font, and lighting is low but carefully directed. Even the butter is geometrically interesting -- it's coaxed into pyramids and yet soft enough for instant spreading.
And every table is supplied with its own pepper grinder and salt shaker. Ay, there's the rub -- for considering the generosity with which many dishes are patted, rolled or battered with salt, it's hard to imagine that the staff has to refill the cellars often.
That's especially regrettable, because in almost every other way, this little jewel box just off Eastern Parkway near Antietam Creek is an unexpected pleasure. The menu is not long, which is far preferable to those that range too wide, but the seasonal tweakings of the standard steak/chicken/salmon/pasta are fun and sometimes fine, and the market-inspired specials change twice a week. The wine list, which is proffered in a little wooden box with wine labels as index cards, is surprisingly good. The breads are tasty, not house-made but finished on the premises and served fresh from the oven. And the staff -- from owner Alexander Tiches, who circulates almost constantly, down to the busers -- is uncommonly pleasant.
But even though the sides and accompaniments are generally more delicate, main ingredients seem to be passing through a high-sodium assembly line. Cashew-crusted chicken breast, which has been a signature dish since the restaurant opened nearly three years ago, was extremely moist and the crust greaseless and crisp, but it tasted as if both the meat and the batter blend had been salted. The truffle-flavored scalloped potatoes, happily, were neither too salty nor too truffle-oil gaudy.
An indulgent appetizer of lump crabmeat and lush ripe avocado didn't need a harsher saline than the crab offered; a little lemon would have been sufficient. The New York strip was hickory-smoked and then roasted to order and would have been superb but for the crusting of salt that nearly obscured the smoking and did a cruel disservice to a fine Zinfandel. A pretty piece of salmon, more like a tenderloin than a filet, came with a lovely shaved-fennel slaw, but the first bite required a remedial water refill. A pair of thick lamb chops stood up well to the harissa-like spicy sauce, and the sweet-sour cucumber julienne cooled the mix, but again, both the sauce and the lamb had been salted as if to carry the entire plate. The house salad of chopped romaine is tossed with a tangy lemony vinaigrette and you-know-what.
The menu also falls into the trendy misnomer trap. Chorizo and beef-stuffed "ravioli" are more like empanadas or samosas than the samosa risotto cakes themselves, which were only lightly crusted, and the so-called ravioli pastry was gritty, as if it had been slipped into the oven on cornmeal and never shaken off. The curried crab fondue required no dipping into; it was the bed on which the risotto cakes reposed (but it was good, as was the charred tomato flourish).
The kitchen's technique, however, is first-rate. Not only is the chicken grease-free, but a special appetizer of tempura-fried cherry tomatoes was both delicate and dry. Neither the cheese-bound risotto nor the smoked Gouda grits were too heavy, and as such tweakings go, "bleu cheesecake" with the filet mignon was an amusing twist.
The market menu can be quite fanciful -- an "Australian sushi," as one diner nicknamed it, of kangaroo wrapped in nori with Asian noodles, and a retro-Trader Vic's-chic crab Rangoon and fried green tomatoes -- but there is obvious attention paid to its conception.
Tiches is a prodigal Hagerstowner who spent some years in the Hyatt hotel system before moving back. (The restaurant was named for Tiches's parents, Louis James and Kathryn.) Chef Lonnie Coble has taken over the kitchen only fairly recently -- Tiches and Coble worked together a while back at the Hyatt Regency in Reston -- and perhaps needs one more menu season to find his balance.
There are a few minor carpings. Although having a wide wall of glass makes for a nice sense of space, some diners might find that staring at the Red Cross office across the parking lot a little queasy-making; I'd go for a few sheers. (The outdoor tables in the back have a bit of fencing to shield them.) Secondly, it would be nicer if customers who go outside to smoke could be encouraged not to hang out so close to the front door, as the smoke not only blows in, it sticks in the nose (and the clothes). Perhaps a bench or two and an ashtray somewhere in the breezeway? (Smoking is allowed in the Kat Lounge, but it isn't noticeable in the dining room.) And finally, some things get repetitious. There are "crisps" popping up all over the menu -- chickpea fries with the lamb (more like thick chips), shoestring crisps on the strip, smoked Gouda crisps with the spinach salad, artichoke crisps with the salmon (they went missing) -- but most of them seemed grainy, blandish and superfluous. Sometimes less is more.