A Columbia chef tries to break the chain
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008
Sound Check: 74 decibels (must speak with raised voice)
"I'm a local," Columbia real estate developer Randy Marriner says. "Columbia has many, many chain restaurants. The last thing the city needs is another chain restaurant."
So, when the former advertising executive snapped up a shuttered Bennigan's a year ago this past spring with the intention of just playing landlord, friends persuaded him to relaunch the place as his kind of restaurant: "an extension of my home," Marriner describes the idea. "Not stuffy."
People close to him pitched in. Chef Joe Krywucki, his daughter Victoria's boyfriend, drew up a business plan for an establishment patterned after the taverns in England that aspire to serve better than pub grub, a trend with roots in the '90s. Marriner's wife, Mary, accompanied her spouse on a tour of role models in New York, including the revered Spotted Pig in the West Village, and ended up putting her stamp on the look and the spirit of the space. And Victoria lent first her name, then her managerial skills, to the establishment, whose four dining rooms are named after tube stops in London.
The result of their efforts is unlike any other restaurant in Howard County.
"It looks like a souped-up McDonald's," a wary friend tells me as we pull into the parking lot. "Bennigan's," I correct him. Though the facade is red brick and sports an antique revolving door at its entrance, the structure retains the carriage of a fast-food feeder.
Inside is a different story. Behind the host stand is a handsome pub that lives up to Marriner's dream of something "English and masculine." Tall tables hug the windows; love seats at either end of the space spell comfort; and a faux pressed-tin ceiling pretends to age the room. (In reality, it's there to absorb noise.) The bar is wrought from Peruvian walnut, a material choice that Marriner says "killed the budget" but makes for a grand backdrop. Beyond the bar, the dining rooms beckon, illuminated with chandeliers and made to look older than they are with heavy velvet drapes here, reclaimed doors there.
Knowing that Krywucki, the chef here, used to lead the kitchen at the deservedly popular Iron Bridge Wine Co., also in Columbia, raises expectations. One look at his menu at Victoria Gastro Pub fills the reader with awe and gratitude. The chef gives diners cheese plates, charcuterie plates, a week's worth of sandwiches, and salads running from Caesar to Cobb. A sense of humor sneaks into a roster of "Lilliputians," Krywucki's answer to appetizers. (Why not treat asparagus as a french fry?) There follow on the page grilled steak and roasted lamb chops, flounder stuffed with spinach, and yellowfin tuna treated to the tropics with mango salsa. If there's not something for everyone here, there's something close to what everyone wants.
About those Lilliputians. They're not small, not at all. In fact, two of you could order one as a first course. Alas, they are more fun to read about than to eat. Lamb spareribs are greasy, more fat than meat. A cumin-spiced duck quesadilla goes down easily. But it left everyone who snacked on the thin triangles at my table wondering what, exactly, the baby-food-soft filling is. That scaled-down French dip? It's a craggy roll sandwiching foie gras and shaved prime rib, messy to eat and not particularly satisfying. My favorite opener finds those lightly battered asparagus spears in a thin flute, the base of which holds a dollop of sauce pink with red pepper. It's cute, and something you'd want to try again.
The kitchen grills a juicy burger, and I like that it comes, as all sandwiches do here, with the option of hand-cut fries, baked beans or a spinach salad. Go for the salad. It could use less vinaigrette, but the greens are still better than the quick-to-go-limp fries or the cloying baked beans, which taste as if they came out of a can.
Nods to England are found mostly in the design of the place, with one exception: a twist on fish and chips. I'm all for innovation, but subbing sea bass stuffed with shrimp and crab for a single piece of fish is not an improvement on tradition.
There are signs of promise, reasons not to dismiss this restaurant after a few bites. The kitchen turns out a nice pork rib chop, over which it ladles a sauce of peaches and bourbon, a pleasing contrast to the entree's salad of black-eyed peas jump-started with pancetta. One day's soup special swirled beer with melted cheese and a few tender shrimp, a combination far lighter than it sounds. If all I'd tried here were the lamb chops, you'd see more stars at the top of this column. The meat was cooked just as rosy as I'd asked, and its sidekicks (fluffy couscous speckled with currants, grilled eggplant lapped with minty yogurt) held their own. Plus, the dish came with a tart pomegranate molasses that proved the kitchen can resist the sugar bowl on occasion.
Most critics I know judge a restaurant based on several visits, a strategy that allows them to see how the place performs at lunch vs. dinner, Monday vs. Saturday and "My name's Cassie" vs. "Hi, I'm Tony" (you know, different waiters). Which leads me to tell you that brunch, at least the one I endured on a recent Sunday, might not show the kitchen at its best. Oysters on the half shell were the equivalent of the Olsen twins -- scrawny -- and from their lack of liquor, they appeared to have been shucked a day earlier. Pappardelle tossed with a few of my favorite things -- roasted walnuts, English peas, morel mushrooms -- was a travesty of dull ingredients tarred with a flat pesto and made worse with Parmesan welded onto the surface of the pasta. Had it been left under a heat lamp, I wondered? A hefty Cuban sandwich was okay, but it was ill-served by mango salsa in its meaty filling. Every time I took a bite, fruit goo spurted out. There was nothing to recommend the sandwich's platemate of fried yucca, however. It tasted like bark. And every mouthful oozed grease. The highlight of that meal was an eye-opening bloody mary, topped off with Guinness.
Three cheers for the beer, by the way. Victoria Gastro Pub serves two dozen brews on tap and double that number by the bottle. There's an ocean of wine to be explored, too, and the choices (and prices) are all over the map. I can't remember ever seeing De Loach White Zinfandel ($25) and Opus One ($275) on the same page at another restaurant.
I like the look of the place. I admire the owners' desire to add something new to the community. But different doesn't translate to delicious. Victoria Gastro Pub is a restaurant that gives diners more, and less, at the same time.