By Candy Sagon
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Reston Town Center has boomed in the past several years, and at no time is that more evident than at night, when its restaurants and bars are packed.
It has taken a while, but the Hyatt Regency hotel ---- which has anchored the center since it opened more than 20 years ago ---- finally took a look around and decided that its staid, dated restaurant needed to get with the times.
So the hotel revamped the decor, menu and name of its signature eatery. The result is the warm and welcoming Tavern 64 Regional Kitchen, which opened in June with a Southern--inspired menu featuring Virginia and Maryland ingredients, including the booze in its retro cocktails. Even the name has local roots ---- Reston was founded in 1964.
Decor--wise, the biggest change is in the bar area, which was enlarged and brightened from the cramped, dark, assignation--only feel it used to have. The new dining area, with its attractive wraparound wall of windows, has soft gray, weathered wood floors, taupe walls and two granite--topped communal tables accented with orange chairs.
The chef is 31--year--old Sean Glover, a West Virginia native who has been cooking at the Hyatt for six years. He helped create the regionally sourced menu, because “that kind of food is not really being offered in the Town Center,” he said.
He’s right about that. The Tavern’s menu at lunch and dinner is certainly one of the most creative in the Reston area. In particular, there are interesting small plates, soups and salads you won’t find elsewhere and a welcome variety of seasonal vegetable sides ---- fried Brussels sprouts, corn bread mash, collard greens ---- as well as vegetarian dishes and a couple of laudable vegan options.
But Tavern 64 is still fighting the battle of many hotel restaurants: a kitchen staff not quite skilled enough to pull off an appealing but ambitious menu. If Glover and his cooks want to equal experienced Town Center competitors such as Passionfish and Jackson’s Mighty Fine Food, they’re going to have to step up their game.
On the improvement to--do list are little things, such as the dry corn bread in the bread basket. And the waiter who doesn’t know the wines well enough to recommend one.
There are also bigger problems, such as consistency. The scallops and succotash are inedibly salty on one visit; the seared flounder for the fish and chips is under--salted on another. Fries are flaccid on two out of three visits, and our waiter confided to us during one dinner that the sweet potato pancake that comes with the otherwise delicious pork belly appetizer needs to be much crisper.
These are not insurmountable problems ---- the scallops, for example, were plump and tender, but someone was ham--fisted with the salt, probably (as the chef later told me) because it was the busiest night since the restaurant reopened and the kitchen had been slammed. Perhaps, but two nights later when I had seared scallops at Passionfish, they were perfect. That’s what Tavern 64 is going up against.
But let’s talk about what we did like, starting with the cocktails. The selection is divided into classics, royales, fizzes and aperitifs. In keeping with the overall theme, many of these have deep Southern roots, including drinks such as the Sazerac, mint julep and refreshing, slightly fizzy Bowman’s Bramble, made with Virginia Sunset Hills gin, soda water, blackberries and a splash of elderflower liqueur.
Each drink gets a line on the menu describing how it’s made. My favorite is the julep’s: “bruise, sweeten, relax,” which seems more like life haiku than a mixology method.
Although the Tavern’s menu is heavy on fish and seafood, its meat dishes are standouts, particularly the slow--cooked brisket, which is offered both as a dinner entree and a lunch sandwich. Glover cooks the meat in a low oven for six hours, lets it rest overnight, then cubes the meat and cooks it like a pot roast for two more hours. Served with braised red cabbage, corn bread mash and red wine sauce, it’s hearty and satisfying.
For traditional down--home Southern cooking done well, there’s a thick Virginia pork chop that comes with sweet potato hash and caramelized onion with a bourbon mushroom sauce that is spot--on.
Among the fish and seafood choices, the most popular dinner entree is the seared Maryland rockfish, served crispy skin--on, on top of jalapeo--cheddar grits (I would have liked more jalapeo), artichoke slaw with a thyme vinaigrette, and a drizzle of chili--honey sauce.
On the lunch menu, you can get seared rockfish (or seared scallops or grilled chicken) atop any of the salads. I added it to West Virginia bibb lettuce tossed with cubes of pear, fried shallots and tangy lemon vinaigrette. It created a lovely, summery meal.
Vegans often get short shrift in most mainstream restaurants, but the Tavern makes a commendable effort to include vegan choices on its breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.
Among the dinner small plates, the meat-- and dairy--free Peas and Toast is a creamy, bright green pea puree (“smashed peas,” as it’s called) mixed with red pepper flakes and lemon zest and dabbed on rounds of ciabatta bread. It makes a perfect accompaniment to glasses of chilled viognier from Virginia’s Barboursville winery.
Of the five desserts, all my guests loved the bread pudding, made with caramelized apples and an applejack brandy sauce and served in a small iron skillet. And then there was the brownie s’more, which would have been great if the brownie hadn’t been refrigerator--cold. (That didn’t stop us from eating every last scrap of it, of course.)
Although the change in decor and menu at the Tavern is welcome, what may be the biggest improvement is in the attitude of the restaurant greeters and waiters. I stopped going to the pre--Tavern restaurant (Market Street Grill) because of the staff's couldn't--care--less treatment of its customers. I'm happy to say that seems to be a thing of the past.
Tom Sietsema is on assignment.