Ovations, Rising To the Challenge
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007
As pleasant a tradition as picnicking at Wolf Trap can be, there are evenings you don't have the time or energy to get a meal together -- or it rains -- and that's when Ovations, the on-site restaurant under a tent, comes in handy. It is operated by Capital Restaurant Concepts, the folks behind Paolo's, J. Paul's, Old Glory Bar-B-Que, Georgia Brown's, Neyla and the new Big Kahuna Cantina in Baltimore, and the Ovations menu is a sort of sampler of their wares.
Diners have two choices: a buffet or a menu of entrees. The entree pasta or veggie plate cost quite a bit more, so the entrees may seem the better bargain. But in truth the kitchen seems more focused on the buffet stations, and as the entree sides are fairly ordinary, the veggie choices in the buffet may be more to your liking.
You may find the buffet concept diet-challenging. But the a la carte entree portions are so large -- in some cases almost absurdly so, especially since you're about to sit more or less still for a few hours -- that the buffet may be the more manageable choice. The cheese grits beneath the salmon entree look to be nearly two cups, enough for several of even the most devoted fans and definitely enough to cement your internal organs together for several days. And the chicken paillard Milanese is somewhat larger than a man's hand.
The paillard, which arrived looking like a dark brown napkin draped over a heap of pasta, was as overcooked as it appeared, with the breading not a light dusting but a heavy battering. The fried chicken from the buffet was not only less heavily armored but, being thicker, more moist.
Despite a specific request that it be served rare, the salmon, a sort of a Cajun blackened number, appeared fully blackened, not only very well done but heaped with seasonings. To the kitchen's credit, it was replaced with a perfectly cooked and less "colored" piece that got its heat from a drizzle of Tabasco rather than from a crust of crushed peppers. The grits, though excessive, were very good, if a trifle salty; the collards were grit-free, carefully boiled and down-home. Still, as nice and generous as the substitute portion was, the wasabi-brushed tuna on the buffet was just as good.
For those hungry for beef, the New York strip is probably the one a la carte choice that might be better than the sliced flank at the carving station because you are more likely to get it rare if you like, and it's pretty hefty.
A house salad with a choice of two dressings, a barbecue ranch -- and that's just what it tastes like, ranch dressing stirred with bottled barbecue sauce -- and a thick, slightly sweet vinaigrette, comes with the entrees. The barbecue ranch also comes on the steak salad, but you could ask your server for some of the horseradish cream at the carving station. The rolls that come with dinner are not a particular asset as they seem to have been sitting out for a while, and the buffet's bread assortment has a few items, including a (sweetish) corn muffin and occasionally biscuits, that are fresher.
The entree price includes one trip to the dessert table. This is some of the best stuff, so you may want to save some space: brownies and blondies, Key lime cheesecake, bourbon pecan pie, peach cobbler (only so-so), mini-cannoli and a huge chocolate fondue pot with various dippers and fruits.
Some of the better dishes usually available at the buffet include a nice tomato, mozzarella and pesto salad (these days prepared with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella balls and a pesto sauce rather than the layered slices of old); a good, not-too-mayo-ish potato salad; tangy sweet-and-sour slaw; nice baba ghanouj and hummus; and the collards. The soups, which vary daily, have been pretty good. Potatoes in various guises are a safe bet, too, as is the spinach. The tortellini in a sun-dried tomato cream sauce is available as an entree and from the buffet, although the entree version is gussied up with prosciutto and mushrooms; it's pleasant but a little bland.
On the less-happy side, neither the sour-orange pork carnitas nor the baked ziti with chicken sausage had much flavor, and at least one night, the "edamame succotash" turned out to be neither, since the soybeans had been replaced not with limas or butter beans but with mushy peas.
Overall, despite its shortcomings, Ovations has become a reliably pleasant experience -- thanks in great part to the wait staff, which maintains a generally fine humor no matter the human or meteorological failings.
A couple of side notes: Although there is occasionally room for walk-ups, it is best to make reservations, and if you are picnicking but didn't bring adult beverages, you can get a cocktail or a glass or bottle of wine from the short and not surprisingly marked-up but serviceable list at the bar near the tent's entrance.