D.C.-area nightlife, events and dining

Tom Sietsema on Lyon Hall: Pared down menu lets food shine

SLUG: MG-DINING-LYON HALL DATE: 8/19/2010 NEG#: 215213 Photog: Michael Temchine/FTWP LOCATION: 3100 Washington Ave., Arlington, VA CAPTION: Provencal tart, kielbasa entree, potato-prune dumplings
SLUG: MG-DINING-LYON HALL DATE: 8/19/2010 NEG#: 215213 Photog: Michael Temchine/FTWP LOCATION: 3100 Washington Ave., Arlington, VA CAPTION: Provencal tart, kielbasa entree, potato-prune dumplings (Michael Temchine - )

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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 12, 2010

I always suspected there was a good restaurant hiding in Lyon Hall. It just took the place a little time to make its charms visible.

Launched in April by the owners of the neighborly Liberty Tavern, also in Clarendon, Lyon Hall arrived on the scene with street cred and the lure of something different: a menu that spoke to Alsace with tartes flambees, sausage platters and not one but three flavors of sauerkraut.

"I'm guilty of trying to come up with restaurant ideas that offer cuisine that I'm personally passionate about," explains Stephen Fedorchak, a principal in both restaurants.

Lyon Hall also provided engaging servers to describe the food, cocktails that didn't taste like everyone else's and giggles all around whenever anyone returned from the restroom. (Hint: That "mirror" above the sinks isn't what you think it is.)

Several roadblocks stood in the way of my lapping up the place.

One deterrent, oddly enough, was the physical menu. The size of a car mat, it used scratchy type that made reading it a chore. Moreover, the format was so busy that the eyes didn't know where to settle. Mine gravitated to the "sides" in the lower left-hand corner of the broad sheet, certainly not the designer's intention.

Another problem was noise. Lyon Hall was a blast -- literally. Even if a customer could read lips, he would be uncomfortable dining amid sound levels (100 decibels one Friday night in August) that approximated those of jackhammers and jets taking off.

Then there was the cooking, a mixed bag of the good (pork schnitzel), the bad (dry fruit clafloutis) and the inconsistent.

Chef Liam LaCivita introduced a revised menu last month, and all I can say is, what a difference a font makes. No more straining the eyes to decipher the dishes, and no more wondering where to start ordering.

Me? These days, I'm heading first for oysters, maybe the tiny Kumamotos from Washington state's clear, cold waters, and plump snails cloaked in parsley butter and crackling with bacon. Charcuterie is now flagged on a sheet of its own. Beet-cured Arctic char, poised on a soft potato cake, and chicken liver-foie gras mousse, capped with port-sweetened aspic, are particularly easy to like.

I'm pleased that the potato dumplings with their cores of Armagnac-spiked prunes survived the whittling. The walnut-size bites, similar to gnocchi, are soft and soothing, set off with threads of speck. Fried sage imparts a breeziness to the idea. The dish is filling; an appetizer order could stand in for an entree. Schnitzel, a reminder that Alsace shares a border with Germany, endures on the menu, too, and it tastes as if it has been flown in for the occasion. The crumb coating is light, the pounded meat really smacks of pork, and diced fingerling potatoes tossed with lemony mustard and pickled Swiss chard make a rousing companion to the centerpiece.

Kielbasa packs even more flavor on its plate. Links of the sausage, spiced with coriander and smoked paprika, frame an aromatic alp of bacon-laced sauerkraut. There are lacy shredded fried potatoes (rosti) in the picture, too, and some sweetness to balance the tang, from a sauce made with plums. The entree is a guilty pleasure you'll pay for at the gym tomorrow. But when you're eating the mound, life sure feels better. Bockwurst is less wicked and less fun, but I enjoy its attending ribbons of carrots, zingy with white balsamic vinegar, and squiggly crisped spaeztle. Among the grilled meats, lamb chops napped with a peppery vinaigrette are especially appealing.


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