2004 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 17, 2004
When he launched this corner restaurant in downtown Frederick several years back, owner Michael Tauraso's mission was pretty straightforward: He hoped to offer "a place where people could come for a good plate of food and a good glass of wine." He's done much to live up to that aim, and it's offered in a bustling, glass-wrapped bistro. Regulars drive from miles away for the Tasting Room's tender and juicy filet mignon, a fine piece of meat enhanced with bearnaise sauce and crisp-soft au gratin potatoes. The herby roast chicken is good, too, with its nice, garlic-laced gravy. Pan-roasted rockfish and loose, fat crab cakes reflect a kitchen that knows its way around seafood. Appetizers are less successful, though you'll find an exception in the sherry-laced lobster chowder, and if you order only one dessert, make sure it's the chocolate "fix" -- and make sure you have strong elbows to fight off any competing forks.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 6, 2004
Some restaurants reveal their charms slowly, and it isn't until you've visited them several times that you understand the hold they have on their audience. Other restaurants grab you by the collar the moment you walk in the door and insist on becoming your new best friend. "You're going to like me!" they practically demand.
The Tasting Room in downtown Frederick is an example of the second genre. Easy to spot amid the competition, the restaurant seduces diners from its street corner with enormous windows that showcase some of the buzz inside, where even early in the evening almost every seat might be occupied and owner Michael Tauraso might be on hand to greet you. The bar is separated from the dining room by see-through panels inscribed with little odes to salt, olive oil and bread. That promise pays off when a basket of very good bread lands on your table, along with a dish of butter that has the letters "TR" branded on it in paprika. Another sign of good things to come is found on the wine list, with a selection of beyond-the-routine labels that live up to the restaurant's name.
The couple at the next table can't decide between rack of lamb and filet mignon, so they enlist the help of a waiter, who tells them that "people come from Rockville just for the filet. They tell us it's better than Ruth's Chris." When I later take his suggestion myself, I can see why: The meat is very tender and quite juicy, with more character than is typical in filet mignon. It's not the only star on the plate, however. The accompanying bearnaise sauce is bright with tarragon, and the au gratin potatoes are sensational, with a delicately crisp surface that yields to soft, comforting layers. As I look around the room, stocked with fashionably dressed patrons who look more Manhattan than exurbs, I notice that plenty of others are slicing into beef, too.
The menu at the Tasting Room, long and varied, reads like a course outline for modern American restaurant cooking. In other words, there's a little bit of everything, from roast chicken to a martini glass of lobster whipped potatoes (just like you never had as a kid), from veal marsala to fish flavored with porcini dust. Shrimp are rolled in Japanese bread crumbs, fried to a nice crunch and offered with a sharp vinegar sauce for dipping, and there's the option of a plate of three cheeses -- seek out the craggy Parmesan, tangy goat cheese and sharp Stilton -- for $14. When he opened this restaurant three years ago, Tauraso says, he simply wanted to create "a place where people could come for a good plate of food and a good glass of wine," and my several meals in his restaurant indicate that his vision is entirely possible.
Yet. If you stuck with appetizers, you might not understand what the fuss is about, or why some people drive an hour or more to eat here. Sure, the sherry-laced lobster chowder is rich with seafood, and the spinach salad is decorated with meaty lardons and airy croutons. But the "farmers tomato salad" tastes as if its pink and charmless key ingredient had been plucked in Iceland in winter, while a pistachio-veined veal-and-pork pate is so dry, NASA could have dreamt it up to feed the astronauts. Tender as they are, "spicy" lamb skewers don't warrant their adjective, and an Italian-inspired soup of dark greens and white beans comes to the table both underseasoned and tepid. "It gets better, I promise," I say to some friends who have braved rush-hour traffic to join me for dinner.
The roast chicken redeems me. The skin is crisp, the flesh meaty and moist, and herbs lend depth to the flavor. The chicken comes with a homey, garlic-redolent gravy, a bundle of bright asparagus and mashed potatoes with the power to move people (really: You should have heard the woman next to me sighing over them). The rockfish is just as good, pan-roasted to give the surface a light tan and removed from the fire at exactly the right moment. Its onion-laced risotto makes a nice partner, as does pepper-ignited beurre blanc. Alone, the rockfish made the trip worthwhile. Fine representatives of the state of Maryland, the crab cakes are fat, loose and built mostly from lump crab, and their tartare and cocktail sauces share a made-from-scratch quality. The halibut, on the other hand, is easy to pass up; its murky sauce of arugula and pesto is just a drag on the fish itself.
"Great meal, Mike!" and "Good to see you, Mike!" I overhear more than a few people saying as they encounter the 39-year-old owner, who has the easy smile and confident swagger of a big man on campus. A native of Kensington,Tauraso has history with Washington, having cooked at the late 209 1/2, the late Georgetown Bar & Grill and the still-very-much-alive dining room in the Four Seasons hotel. In more recent years, the restaurateur has made a name for himself in Frederick at restaurants he previously owned, Tauraso's and Luke's Pizza Co.
Service at the Tasting Room can be good or lacking, and sometimes both during the same meal. One evening, my waiter started out on a high, pointing out the menu's best dishes and detailing why he liked them. But he lost points as my pals and I sat waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting (Hey, wake me up for the election!) for our food to arrive, and never once getting a progress report from him. Other servers, like the woman who never smiles and rarely checks back, apparently think their job is just to bring food to the table. Kudos to the friendly voices who work the telephone and the bus people, who always seem attuned to guests' needs.
There are at least two reasons to stick around for dessert. One is the aptly named chocolate "fix," slabs of dark, decadent chocolate mousse lightened by spoonfuls of creme anglaise. The second is the "banana split trifle," which brings together banana mousse, toasted walnuts, vanilla ice cream, strawberry jam and (Stop! More!) sponge cake. Both desserts are rich, both are best shared, and both help smooth over any bumps that may have preceded them.