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Inn Development

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
If it's Tuesday, this must be salmon: The Carlyle Grand Cafe in Shirlington knows how busy and complicated its diners' lives can be. So it helps out by writing on every doggie bag the name of the restaurant and the date. No more wondering how long that lamb chop's been in the refrigerator, or which leftovers are freshest. "We have many regulars in here," explains the hostess. "We're just trying to help them out a little."
I'm beginning to believe that talent is like a grapevine: It needs the right soil and climate in which to develop, and when conditions aren't right, even the best rootstock can't produce great wine.

Chef David Craig was cooking exciting food at Pesce, where he was chef until last summer. Now he's at the Tabard Inn, and so far this vintage doesn't match his last. Is the problem that the kitchen doesn't suit him? Did he benefit from the guidance of Regine Palladin, who manages Pesce? Whatever the cause, his talent is not flourishing, at least not yet.

The Tabard Inn has had a succession of chefs in recent years, and while all have been competent, none has made a mark. The restaurant remains popular, a tribute to the cozy tile-floored dining room with its chummy bar and local art on the walls, the romantic lounge with sofas and fireplace, and the liltingly pretty walled garden. By now the Tabard Inn is a Washington personality, a restaurant that feels like family.

Much of its produce is home-grown, and the rest of the ingredients are also meticulously chosen. In the current American style, the Tabard Inn changes its menus daily and reflects the seasons; it emphasizes fish and vegetables and offers a small but savvy selection of wines by the glass as well as by the bottle. The service is gracious and intelligent at its best, though niceties get lost when it's rushed.

The Tabard Inn is a place to talk, to relax and unbend rather than impress. The style has a graduate-student tastefulness, though the tablecloths are skimpy and often in need of ironing and the tables are small. It's an environment where $12 appetizers and $26 entrees look misplaced.

Of course, when the food is great, the prices seem within reason. One evening Craig was serving an appetizer of boudin noir, a sausage so plump it was about to burst, on a bed of shredded duck confit, fresh green peas and roasted shallots in a roasted garlic cream. The combination was inspired: The rich hamminess of the duck played against the sweetness of the peas, bound by an aromatic web of shallots and garlic. An appetizer? It was worthy of a meal. Another evening, an appetizer of homely-sounding rigatoni with Bolognese meat ragu tasted astonishingly elegant and Italian. The pasta tubes, infused with sauce, were piled like logs, and more sauce was alongside so you could appreciate on its own the fine dicing of the veal and vegetables and wonder how the dish managed to be both robust and delicate. It, too, deserved to be an entree.

Among the entrees, the most satisfying I've found was a veal chop. It was large and thick-cut, tender but not soft, its flavor accented by roasted peppers, rapini, potatoes and whole cloves of soft unpeeled garlic. It was veal at its best.

I'd been expecting Craig's highlights to be the fish dishes, given his experience at Pesce. Instead, he seemed to be weary of seafood.

One evening he rendered tiny grilled squid luscious by crisping them on the grill and garnishing them with avocado and frisee in a mild lime vinaigrette. And his tuna tartare, overwrought in his early days here, has been tamed to a pleasant thick disk of finely minced raw fish with just enough soy sauce and interesting bits of crunch. Otherwise, though, his fish has been disappointing. An appetizer of blowfish tempura was bland and soggy, upstaged even by its seaweed salad. A fish stew tasted more mineral than animal. An oven-crisped whole bluefish had a bitter interior and was drowning in butter. A sparkling fresh yellowtail snapper lost the battle for dominance to its garnish of marinated fennel with wine, anchovies and tomatoes. And a wonderful crackly-skinned red trout was overwhelmed by sweet beet puree.

Still, none of the fish dishes sank to the level of one evening's turkey scaloppine. It was stiff and unyielding, with all the flavor of salted fiberboard, in a Parmesan cream that intensified the salinity. If not for its fragrant wild mushroom tagliarini, it would have passed for cafeteria food.

It's the tagliarini, the rigatoni, the pearly polenta that remind me of Craig's innate talent. He makes starches – even plain sliced potatoes, lightly browned – taste like manna. His risotto is ethereal, one day weaving spinach, asparagus, butter beans and tiny tomatoes into a creamy green amalgam with bursts of red and darker green. If you approached the Tabard Inn as a pasta place, you'd leave boasting of the chef's genius.

Nobody leaves the Tabard Inn hungry, not with its carnival of desserts. If you want to celebrate chocolate, here's your party store. The stuff is applied with a trowel in a phyllo-crusted chocolate-pecan pie drenched in caramel. Chocolate also might show up with caramel in a torte girded by chocolate latticework, or alone in a rather gooey bread pudding. Last summer, chocolate and raspberries cuddled in a tart with a cookie crust. Even without chocolate, the desserts' richness is undiminished. There might be an espresso creme brulee, and the house-made ice creams have a lavish emphasis on the cream. Furthermore, all of these richnesses are draped with cookies curled into ringlets, like the bows on gift-wrapped packages, plus frizzes of whipped cream and whole strawberries.

The Tabard Inn is a perennial. No chef can dampen its success. But it's worrisome that the inn is somehow dampening David Craig's accomplishments. I've had his marvelous seafood at Pesce, his riveting pasta dishes here. I'm willing to wait, if that's what it takes for him to combine them under one roof.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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