TO BYO or not to BYO, that is the question. Picnicking at Wolf Trap is a Washington summer tradition, and there are patrons whose productions out front rival the ones on stage. But there are times when it's a tight squeeze between the toll road and showtime, or the weather makes dining alfresco a little too fresh, or (just recently) the gentle dropping upon your shoulders is not leaves but cicadas. No, of course they won't hurt you, but they don't do much to improve a wine, either. You can order a pickup meal, which is a help, but that has to be done a day ahead, so impulse dining is out.
Which leaves Ovations, Wolf Trap's open-air restaurant, which looks out over the same hillside as those wooden picnic tables, though without the teeters; and which has the advantage of canvas sides that can be dropped in times of rain. (Don't sit under a seam.) Ovations's main draw is an all-you-can-eat buffet; and this year, for the first time, the restaurant is being catered by the Capital Restaurants group, owner of Paolo's, Old Glory, Georgia Brown's and several other area establishments. And while it is still unquestionably buffet fare, it's not a bad alternative to hauling the tablecloth up the hill.
The layout, it must be said, is a little clumsy, because while the salads are at one side of the two main tables -- one is set up along the rear of the pavilion, the other at right angles down the middle -- the breads and soups are at the other, where you may not see them until somewhat later in the meal. (In any case, not all these "opening acts," as the menu calls them, make it out on time.) Among the best are a sliced yellow, red and cocktail tomato salad layered with mozzarella, just a dash of pesto and balsamic vinegar; a sweet-and-sour cucumber salad; and a simple but fresh do-it-yourself mesclun mix. The Caesar salad is fair, though blandish and the croutons untoasted. If you like that Miracle Whip flavor, there's an edamame-macaroni salad. The cantaloupe and honeydew mix was ripe, which is all it really needs. Slaws, one carrot and one more traditional, were plain but pretty good.
Of the various soups that rotate through the menu, the thick cream of portabello is very good, though it ought to be hotter than lukewarm because the surface sort of settles (the serving bowl felt cold). Cream of cucumber is refreshing but, being (intentionally) cold, could have used a little more seasoning.
The vegetable dishes, which are on the center table with the entrees, have some ambitious twists, but not entirely successful ones. Brussels sprouts looked promising, nice and small, but were seriously undercooked and bitter, and the pearl onions, pink from apparently simmering in red wine, had a raw alcohol kick, as if they were leftover from some strange cocktail. Edamame succotash with a mix of white shoepeg and yellow corn was nontraditionally creamy, but kinda comfy. The "truffle" whipped potatoes were not noticeably truffle-ish, but had nice consistency. The green beans, however, were very woody, and the chili sauce seemed more an attention-getter than a considered condiment.
Surprisingly (because this is usually a tough area for buffets), the main courses are the most dependable dishes. Cayenne-espresso marinated flank steak with roasted shiitakes is very flavorful; ideally, since it does sit out for a while, it might be taken off medium rare so it wasn't all well done, but even so it's tender. Timing is not even a problem with the tuna, which has been cooked to varying degrees for your choice, cut in chunks that allow for a taste of the pepper crusting and tossed with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. The fried chicken (the popular buttermilk-soaked recipe from Georgia Brown's) is unusually successful, too, moist inside but dry and extra-crispy outside.
The center of the back table is the pasta station, offering various dishes in the "mood of our Chef." It's a pretty setup, but periodically, when skillets full of ingredients are being sauteed to pour into the serving dish, a truly gasp-worthy wave of garlic sweeps through the pavilion and gives some diners concern that the food may be over-powerful, especially considering they're about to sit close together for several hours. However, in the execution, the pastas tend to be under- rather than over-seasoned. A spinach rotelli with mozzarella, tiny meatballs and marinara sauce was straightforward and the pasta carefully boiled, but the final version begged for fresh ground pepper or a few red flakes. Butternut squash and goat cheese ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes and arugula was more ambitious, and the ravioli good; but the unexpectedly sweet citrus sauce was uncomplementary and off-putting.
If you are a dessert person, you'll be fine here: tiramisu, dense fudge nut brownies, a good carrot cake and a punch bowl's worth of melted chocolate for dipping strawberries.
There are a few other small things that could easily be corrected. Although there are generally three or four kinds of breads available -- biscuits, ciabatta, pita, a generic "French" -- none is great; the biscuits are best. And while the wine list is understandably short, it seems strange that there is no sparkling wine available except by the bottle -- and it's a pretty large financial gap between the choices of Australia's Seaview, a $9 or $10 wine going for $24, and Virginia's Oasis for $84 -- especially since you can get a split of the quite respectable cava Cordoniu at the concession stand inside the ticket gates for $7. If you don't want to do the buffet, there are a few entrees and dinner salads you can order a la carte, including a New York strip, a steak salad with the espresso beef, pan-roasted salmon or salmon salad, a chicken Milanese or chicken salad, and black-eyed pea cakes with blackened tomato and soft garlic sauce.
Reservations are not required, but are a pretty good idea. The staff, it should be noted, is exceptionally nice and makes no move to hurry customers along. The Capital Restaurants group also prepares the pickup dinners, a variety of dishes from its restaurants' menus; go to www.crcatering.com/wolftrap to order.