Aux Beaux Champs open weekdays, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. for breakfast, noon to 3 p.m. for lunch, 6 to 11:30 p.m. for dinner; weekends, 8 to 10 a.m. for breakfast, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for brunch, 6 to 11:30 p.m. for dinner. Garden Terrace open daily, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. All major credit cards. Reservations for Aux Beaux Champs at lunch and dinner, and before noon for weekend brunch. Prices: Aux Beaux Champs, brunch $9.50 to $15.75, lunch main courses $5.50 to $11.50, dinner main courses $10.85 to $16.75. Garden Terrace, lunch main courses $4.25 to $5.95, complete afternoon tea $4.95, a la carte items $1.75 to $9.75.
In A Day in the Life of Four Seasons, Act I is Saturday or Sunday brunch. Presuming you are not staying at the hotel, The Brunch Experience at Four Seasons starts at the circular driveway, where possibly the most dignified and personable doorman within gas tank range will usher you from your car and have it installed in the garage. Right away you can tell that this production is well cast. Limousines are left in the driveway, no doubt to set the scene. After confusion over whether -- and where -- to push or pull the handsome brass-glass doors, the entry's sea of carpet and border of indoor tropical garden remind you that you have arrived somewhere that is meant to be special. A stroll through this wool and petal garden leads to the lounge ahead, but more on that later. Brunch is downstairs, down the broadest staircase east of MGM, in the main dining room, called Aux Beaux Champs.
This restaurant is not at its best at breakfast or brunch, for one of its main assets is its evening maitre d'hotel (also brilliantly cast, with the broadest smile east of MGM). Somebody seats you -- graciously, to be sure -- and abandons you to waiting for a waiter to be hired to serve your table. At least there is a busboy, who pours your coffee and replaces it with alacrity when you happen to get a burned batch. Usually the coffee is quite good. And if you are going to be abandoned, you could do far worse than the silk brocade chairs and the peach velvet walls of Aux Beaux Champs dining room, where sinking into the mood is facilitated by soft piano music, a long white marble bar, acres of windows with diagonally slatted shutters, and tables spaced well enough that even your complaints won't be overheard.
The menu says the brunch includes "a selection from the brunch bakery display, fresh fruits, juices or compotes of the season." It is apparently the waiter's selection, and he decided we were fruit salad types, automatically bringing us each a bowl of very nice fresh melon, pineapple, strawberries and kiwis. I wonder whom he picked as orange juice or stewed prune types? Both of those and more were displayed on the dining room buffet. The bakery goods were more equitably distributed; homemade and buttery, they included flaky croissants, fine-grained brioche and a few reasonably good coffee cakes. Our busboy, once we grabbed (literally) his attention, was willing to bring us butter, at least more willing than to bring us water. He balked totally, however, when we requested sauce for the beef Wellington. The menu promised sauce periogourdine, and the waiter had solicitously poured it at the next table, but our busboy shrugged that it was not his job, and turned to less risky tasks. The poor beef Wellington thus bared its dry texture and tasteless nature. Its undercooked, soggy crust could not be blamed on or hidden by a sauce.
The menu tantalizes with New Orleans pretensions: perfectly poached eggs with chicken livers (dry and bitter) on toast with bearnaise sauce ($9.50) or with beef tenderloin and sauce Choron ($15.75). Eggs benedict are served the traditional way ($10.25) or on bagel with an extravagance of excellent smoked salmon instead of Canadian bacon ($12.25). An omelet, a seafood crepe, waffles and pancakes flesh out the menu. The egg cookery is not to be faulted, and the sauces are appropriately buttery and tangy. Bagel benedict is as luscious a brunch dish as any restaurant hereabouts serves. And the bananas Foster that climax your brunch, if the waiter remembers, taste more like molasses than they should, but are a pleasant touch. In all, brunch gets off to a slow start but shows promise once the act is polished, as it certainly should be at the price.
ActII: Lunch in the Garden Terrace
Considering all factors -- ambience, service, food and price -- the Garden Terrace lunch is the hit of the show. Pick a sunny day and a sofa in front of the windows to make lunch feel like a Rock Creek Park picnic. The cushions are soft, the colors are soft, and a soft-spoken waitress brings you a drink -- Robert Mondavi wine by the glass, if you wish -- and takes your order. You can choose a quiche ($5.25), very deep and very creamy, with a flaky crust, a credit to the kitchen, particularly when salmon is the day's filling. At the same price are beautiful open-face sandwiches, their bread bases fluted, their fillings layered and folded and garnished. Choose two from smoked salmon, prosciutto or baked ham with melon, rare glazed roast beef, bundles of fresh asparagus or hillocks of marinated baby shrimp. Delightful still lifes they are, except for the iceberg lettuce under the smoked salmon. You can select a plate of duck pate larded with foie gras or fine pheasant pate with nuts and truffles and cognac, bordered with a piquant Cumberland sauce. But, oddly and unfortunately, you cannot select a slice of each. There is a daily roast with salad at $5.95, and the most imaginative choice of all, a salad plate at $4.25. Far from an ordinary salad plate, it is a careful composition of marinated shrimp, julienned carrots, artichoke hearts, raw vegetables and ripe fruits, mushrooms and the like, each individually dressed and fresh and crisp, the whole a satisfying array. Finish with a commendable cookie-crusted tart filled with soft custard and fruits such as raspberries or kiwis. The French pastries can be good, particularly the eclairs, but the buttercream cakes are not nearly as delicious as they look. And the homemade ice creams should be more creamy and intense to warrant the effort. Such a relaxing, beautiful, casual lunch will cost nearly $15 with wine and tip, but is worth the refreshing interlude before the afternoon's work.
Act III: Afternoon Tea
Teatime, the meal whose only purpose is to pamper and relax you, is another matter. The ingredients are the same, the delightful sandwiches in this case rolled into miniature pinwheels. You can have a set tea of sandwiches, pastry, scone with supposedly Double Devon Cream (that tastes like creme fraiche), tea breads and tea. It will cost you $4.95. Or you can have just pastries and tea breads or ice creams, or just tea. But instead of lingering over your tea, you are left lingering waiting for your tea. We waited 45 minutes. Others waited longer. And, considering that the valet parking costs $1.70 an hour unless you are dining downstaris in Aux Beaux Champs, you pay doubly for the irritating wait (unpleasantly reminiscent of having to pay $1.35 for parking at brunch because the service took over two hours, which is the limit of the restaurant's free parking). The plush rose chairs and sofas, the beveled glass coffee tables, the expanse of the park viewed through the windows only kept us happy for half our wait. Then when the plate of food was unceremoniously delivered with sandwiches and pastries that had been randomly chosen for us without asking our preference, we felt cheated. Finally, when we realized that the portions were very tiny (all right for tea time, but not at $4.95) and the French pastry on the set tea was a tiny brownie or turnover rather than the more elaborate a la carte pastries like eclairs and tarts, the harried, ungenerous details accumulated to spoil the scene, and we joined the other grumblers at the door to wait for our car.
Act IV: Dinner
Aux Beaux Champs glows at night. Silent carts roll to the tables to finish and flame the platters decorated with geometric precision. The maitre d'hotel cushions little problems in velvet and orchestrates an air of celebration. The wine steward, silver tasting cup around his neck, discusses the intimate details of your wine. The wine list is a long catalogue of California cabernets and reislings, at objectionably high prices, but aren't they all, today? Infantile French burgundies and bordeaux tempt you to return in a few years. You can order something drinkable at $9.50 if need be, and it will taste better for the silver coaster that holds it and the balloon glasses that capture the bouquet. Thus begins the dinner service -- refined, quiet, attentive.
The menu reads like poetry of the palate: Duckling terrine with hazelnuts, smoked salmon with blini, cured alpine beef or brioche filled with snails in red wine sauce to start, none of them less than $4.25. Beautiful little morsels those appetizers are, but the roquefort cheese in puff pastry tastes of raw dough and a sauce monomaniacal in its devotion to roquefort. Salmon mousse is creamy and delicate in flavor, but edged in rubber. It is saved, however, by a superb foamy wine and cream sauce. Remembering a grand scallop and artichoke soup at lunch one day, we were most disappointed in the lobster bisque, acrid and tasting mostly of tomato despite tender little lobster bits. Salad proved no greater success, its fragile leaves of Boston lettuce weighted down by an excessively heavy dressing. Before the main course comes a cunning little liqueur glass of sherbet to cleanse your palate, pretty and homemade but too sweet for its purpose. Most of the main courses hover near and above $15, and they sound worth it: poached salmon with red caviar, red Spanish shrimp in Meaux mustard sauce, filets of beef, broiled paillard of veal, sweetbread with morels. Boned rack of lamb with spinach and mushroom puree in puff pastry looked like a flower with petals of lamb, and was garnished with fresh mint leaves. The meat was tender and rare, but the pastry was limply raw inside, and the beautifully limpid looking madeira sauce lacked personality. Breast of duck with blueberries tasted fruity but dull, its sweetness and tartness unbalanced on the sweet side and swamping the duck, which was in itself delicious meat. Even the potatoes were elegantly carved and beautifully golden but lacked any taste of being freshly sauteed. Paillard of veal was nicely flavored from its charcoal grilling, but cut too thin and cooked too long, it tasted juiceless and dry. Lunch another day reinforced the impressions of the dinner; the ingredients were top quality, and preparation was correct, but little was memorable. And lunch suffered from balky service. It was delightful to have snow peas served as a vegetable, but I would have left happier if our meal had been served promptly. We told the waiter and maitre d'hotel we needed to be out in an hour, but languished for two hours in the disorganizing dining room.
The Four Seasons serves luxurious food in surroundings unsurpassed locally. But the ingenuity of the menu turns to gimmickry on the plate; the prices and the ambitions overreach the capacity of the kitchen. Sauces are beautifully textured, but dishes too often taste like hotel food, aimed for middle America rather than the $40-to-$50-dinner-market. Good food it may be but, for the money, Washington offers better. As elaborate as is the production at Aux Beaux Champs, the last work is that it does not rise above the level of very good hotel food.