Open Tuesday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m. MC, V. Reservations. Parking. Prices: Main Courses at dinner $9 to $14. Full dinner with drink, wine, tax and tip about $25 to $35 a person.
A real beef Stroganov should be seasoned with a gypsy violinist, and so it is at the Serbian Crown II. This new restaurant, though located in a small shopping strip, answers some of the hunger Washingtonians have for a country inn. Just a stone's throw from L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, it can be the goal of a ride along tree-lined winding roads. It is outfitted with wooden beams and deep raspberry walls of rustic texture, with intensely Slavic portraits and chandeliers. A few small flowers in pottery pitchers decorate the tables, which are covered with pink tablecloths. The scene is definitely cozy and definitely Slavic. The dollop of sour cream that tops off the mix is the wandering violinist who plays at your elbow whatever song speaks to the Slav in your soul, from "Dark Eyes" to "Fiddler on the Roof."
The menu is likely to look familiar, for the Serbian Crown II, at least on paper, is a carbon copy of the Wisconsin Avenue Serbian Crown. The same dishes are listed, the same dozens of vodka brands and concoctions offered.But the Serbian Crown II -- being new and in the suburbs -- has more rough edges (as well as more space). The list of vodkas so far has been a facade, with only a few brands actually available. Suckling pig, though engrossed on the menu, has not been in the kitchen when I have ordered. "Today's Specials" have remained the same day after day. And the preparations have been less reliable than at the Tenleytown original. Still, it has enough assets to make the excursion down its country road worth considering.
After a tall crystal glass of pale pink strawberry vodka, icy and fragrant, edges are smoothed. Choosing dinner is a complicated process of elimination. Nearly everything is designated on the menu as a specialty of the house or of the day. And the list is full of dishes rarely found elsewhere locally. First, there are nearly three dozen appetizers and soups, ranging from $1.95 for soup to caviar -- with or without bliny -- for $28. With such a list, one must consider compromises. Zakuska -- Russian mixed hors d'oeuvres -- allows a sampling of several and shows the range of the kitchen's success, from good, rich pate, aromatic marinated mushrooms and celery remoulade to dry, excessively fishy smoked sturgeon. The whole is better than its parts, though some of the parts are very good. Bliny with caviar are the most enticing beginnings, unless you are a purist who insists on caviar straight. If $28 beluga is not in your range, settle for $8 fresh Canadian salmon roe. It comes wrapped in light buckwheat pancakes and slathered with sour cream, the red eggs a wonderful salty contrast to the cream and strong wheat flavor. The borscht could use some body and depth; hot and beefy, it is appealingly tart but frail. Gibanich is close to being a spectacular beginning; it is a cross between cheese souffle and noodle pudding, puffed and crustly brown on top and bottom, with a near-custard of cottage cheese, eggs and noodles. But it is devoid of seasoning, even lacking salt. A slight adjustment could render it luscious, though then one would finsih the entire outsize portion and have little space for the main course.
Main courses are Russian, Yugoslavian (mostly skewered meats) and French, varied enough to last through a season of visits. Not having had a whole season, I could sample only a small portion of them, but based on that I would steer you towards fish. Dover sole, salmon and trout are the choices, but prepared in elaborate fashions. Star among them is the pate de sole Vladimir, a one-person version of kulebiaka (there is also the classic version of this fish in pastry for two people) served as a cross-section slice. The pastry itself is an impeccable puff pastry, buttery and crisp from top to bottom. It encloses a robust fish mousse -- more like genfilte fish than like quenelles -- and soft pink salmon slices, the whole moistened with an airy, winey butter sauce, its richness balanced by acid as with a good hollandaise. Vladimir should be proud. Filet of Dover sole Valeska is no less a star, the enormous portion of folded, delicate filets ladled with a creamy tomato-tinged sauce heavier than the first, but just as sumptuous, and handsomely glazed. It was insulted by its garnish of dry, stringy sliced shrimp, but survived the insult.
Meat dishes -- except for a sharp, lively, mixed-at-the-table tartar steak -- have been less satisfying than the fish. Portions are gigantic, and the ingredients are of high quality. But filets of lamb with tarragon were insufficiently trimmed, cooked beyond the rare state requested, and topped with a heavy brown sauce lacking both character and subtlety, and overdosed with acrid dried tarragon. Beef stroganov would have fared better had it been called goulash. The beef cubes were well browned and juicy, good meat. But the paprika dominated the sauce, good pungent Hungarian paprika, and sour cream was just a garnish. As a goulash it excelled; as stroganov it disappointed.
The kitchen knows how to cook veal kidneys properly. And Serbian duck was crisp and savory, slightly too chewy but pleasantly flavored with mild sauerkraut. The most misguided main dish I tried was chicken Kiev. Its crumb crust tasted fresh and crunchy and the buttery, garlicky center was fine; but it was made with dark meat, which tasted heavy and felt slippery. The whole lacked the delicacy of breast of chicken Kiev. I have yet to explore the grilled meats or stuffed cabbage or veal Orloff, and I would eagerly return to sample suckling pig or baby roast lamb in their seasons.
Those who know the Serbian Crown will expect greatness from this restaurant's vegetables. Sauteed potatoes and crisp, fresh, buttery green beans are standard fare there. Here, too, they fill out most main courses. But they are not as carefully held or reheated: the potatoes are sometimes dry and the beans often shriveled. The method needs adjustment, though the intentions are obviously good.
Desserts bear no comparison with the original Serbian Crown, which has often been lauded for its pastry display. When pastries are available at the new branch at all, they are limited to the likes of stolid strudel with more sugar than apples in the filling, or a pretty good strawberry tart. Also on the Great Falls menu are the conventional flaming crepes, strawberries Romanoff, coupes, mousse and creme caramel.
The wine list is remarkably reasonable, particularly for Virginia, and includes some very good California wines among the French, Hungarian, Yugoslav and Rumanian listings. While the choice is spotty, in some cases noting years and in other cases merely claiming "vintage," some rare finds are available.
Even more to be praised is the service: the meal is well paced, the wine poured in timely fashion, the waiter attentive except when too many tables at the height of dinner keep him moving at a breakneck speed. Most important, the service is spirited and intent on pleasing. Complaints are met with concern.
Serbian Crown II, in the manner of contemporary country inns, has downtown prices. Main dishes average around $10, and even if you forego caviar, a full meal with vodka and wine will cost $25 or more per person with tax and tip. For an evening's entertainment with custom-made music, it is a small price, at least if you have ordered what the kitchen does best. The strawberry vodka, of course, helps you look at the Serbian Crown II through rose-colored glasses.