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High and Mighty Good

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 1999

  Richman Review

Since Washington is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it's a real shame we don't have a rooftop restaurant with a view.

We have several.

Yeah, but I mean one that serves good food.

I've found one.

I don't believe it. Where?

Crystal City.

Crystal City? That wasn't where I had in mind.

If you want to look at Washington from a rooftop, it's best to be in Rosslyn or Crystal City. If it were in Washington, you'd be looking at a bunch of hotels and office buildings across the river.

The one I've found, the Chesapeake Grill in the Hyatt Regency hotel, is, unfortunately, so far from the Mall that the Capitol and Washington Monument look like toys, but its panorama of the Potomac and Reagan National Airport provides an entertaining show of airplanes coming and going, and from its 19th-floor perch the lights seem to stretch forever.

Okay, you've got my attention. But if it's so good, why haven't I heard of it before?

Most of the people who have heard of it are conventioneers staying at the hotel. They've been 90 percent of its business.

Aww, it can't be that good if it's just a tourist place.

The point is that it has a new chef, Robert Donis. He's been working under Brian McBride at Melrose, in Washington's Park Hyatt, and you probably already know how fine that is.

Yes, but that doesn't mean this guy is necessarily good on his own. Convince me.

How's this: Calamari cut into flower shapes, sprinkled with lime and black pepper and grilled so that it is buttery-tender yet slightly smoky, surrounding a plate of fancy little greens with a lime ginger vinaigrette. Or a field greens salad in a pear vinaigrette with pine nuts and blue cheese. There's even a deconstructed Caesar salad with the Parmesan baked into crisp wafers and one large cheese-crusted crouton on the side.

Are those all of the appetizers? I'd like something heartier.

She-crab soup is the real thing, as ruddy and rich as a lobster bisque, with lots of lump crab meat. Shrimp ravioli is a bit too hearty – too doughy, anyway – but it's cunningly tossed with slices of crisply fried okra and spicy andouille sausage.

Sausage? Anything for vegetarians?

A pretty phyllo-crusted beggar's purse filled with mozzarella and eggplant, in a wispy herb sauce. How do the conventioneers take to weird things like calamari and eggplant-stuffed pastry?

For them, there's a splendid shrimp cocktail with a zingy horseradish-oil cocktail sauce. The shrimp are large and juicy, and even though they haven't much intrinsic flavor, they're improved by being grilled. Be prepared, though. The price is a hefty $12 for only three shrimp.

Expense accounts. They can take it. I'll bet the steak's a fortune, too.

No, it's $23, and while it's not as thick or marbled as at the best steakhouses, it's an awfully flavorful New York strip with delicious accompaniments of baby turnips, crusty mashed-potato cake and a sweet, oniony condiment called shallot jam. It's definitely more satisfying than the most popular entree, a surf-n-turf of dry, overcooked filet mignon topped with jumbo shrimp (although the lumpy mashed potatoes and merlot sauce almost make it worthwhile).

What about the restaurant's name? What's from the Chesapeake?

The crab cakes are proud showcases for back-fin meat, with a creamy binder and just enough seasoning to serve as background. They come with a perfumy lemon grass beurre blanc and a few scrumptious dollops of carrot mousse.

The menu casts farther for scallops with Seville orange and watercress sauce on fennel risotto, and salmon with a delightful log cabin of fried potatoes in mustard-caraway sauce. But the salmon's been unevenly cooked and its garnish of roe is the wrong kind, not the big juicy, salty salmon roe that's promised, but that tasteless pinhead-size pink Japanese roe. Tuna is sauteed with lentils and onions in lemon grass sauce, and Chilean sea bass comes perched on a strange but luscious bowlful of fermented Chinese black beans, julienned snow peas and shiitakes with a timbale of brown rice.

I don't know. Isn't there anything less complicated?

The lamb shank is braised with cannellini beans and a hint of spice, but it has tasted watered-down. The chicken breast, though, should appeal to everyone. It's juicy and crisp-skinned, with a slathering of bearnaise-style sauce and a big mound of homey polenta dressed up with pine nuts.

Hotels have a reputation for terrible service; what about this one?

It can be excellent, but there are problems. When the restaurant's nearly empty, the service can seem dreadful because the room is long and narrow and the waiters aren't always in sight. What's worse, some of the staff members seem to have been hired about half an hour ago and have no idea how to deal with plates or customers. But I've had a couple of sensational waiters who were thoughtful and insightful, witty as well. Since the kitchen can be slow, though, you can get to know the airport flight patterns intimately before the evening's finished. And the shopping-mall music could drive you crazy.

My kids would love to watch those planes taking off and landing. But this doesn't sound like a family restaurant.

Listen to this: Kids can order a half portion of any of the entrees at half price. And the Shirley Temples I saw had six maraschino cherries.

Speaking of drinks, how's the wine list?

Not bad. Not great. About 40 bottles long, from a Beringer white zinfandel at $25 to a Jordan cabernet at $55 – no vintages listed. A dozen wines by the glass. Seven half-bottles. And this being a rooftop restaurant, it's no surprise that there are half a dozen sparkling wines.

Are desserts up to the rest of the meal?

At least. There are only a few, and unfortunately the lightest – grilled pineapple with mango – suffers from sour, unripe fruit. But even if blueberries aren't in season, they're made into a fragrant and buttery cobbler with cinnamon ice cream. The coffee creme brulee is a shimmering velvet custard with a darkly caramelized glaze. Those are the highlights.

I don't suppose I could hope for good coffee, too?

Nope, don't push your luck.

Chesapeake Grill – Hyatt Regency, 2799 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Arlington. 703/413-6700. Open: Monday through Saturday for dinner 6 to 10 p.m., for light fare 10 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: appetizers $6 to $12, entrees $20 to $27. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 to $60 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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