Many evaluations of restaurants I visit never see print, either because there is no point in telling readers not to visit a little out-of-the-way restaurant that they have never heard of, or because the restaurant may have some assets or be of some interest but not enough to warrant an entire column. Here, then, is a roundup of various restaurants, a sampler of little and little-known eating places.
Carry Me Back--Since spring wanderlust is upon us, you might consider wandering toward two culinary destinations near Charlottesville, Va.
A family could hardly do better than at Rhodes Farm Inn (804/325-2200), operated by the people who run Wintergreen ski resort. The inn nestles in the valley below the slopes. Free of the pretensions of a slick apr,es-ski restaurant, Rhodes Farm is family-run and serves family-style, with no menu or choice but plenty of home-style food. First comes the salad--good dressing on greens that could be fresher--and pitchers of iced tea (reminding you that you're in the South), along with lemony applesauce from Grandma's secret recipe. If it's Saturday night, those dishes will be followed by thick-gravied pot roast and fine smoky ham, stewed tomatoes, limas, potatoes, gravy, biscuits--the works. On Sunday the beef and ham will be replaced by pan-fried chicken. Other days it might be pork chops, barbecued ribs or baked chicken, followed by a supersweet unglamorous but irresistible dessert such as Cherry Dump or cobbler. Finally, there is a bill of $10.50 per person on weekends or $8.50 on weekdays for dinner, $5.50 for lunch, and a final look among the decorative shelves of home-canned foods and family trophies, another little chat with Mama or with son and m.aitre d'h.otel Cameron.
Nearer to Charlottesville, The Gallery (804/823-5883) restaurant, which we remembered from several years ago for its toffee shortbread, is now The Galerie, a French restaurant. But thank goodness it still has the shortbread. It also has a delightful airy scallop p.at,e or a pungent duck-avocado-ratatouille salad to start; a veal zingara with a zesty ham and mushroom sauce; an entrec.ote with two sauces, one of them a very glossy and intense bordelaise; and a few other commendable dishes that the chef identifies as "progressive" cuisine. A pretty, candlelighted restaurant with a wine list that is well chosen but priced quite high, The Galerie's main dishes average $13 to $16; there's a tendency to oversalt, but a sure and professional touch in the kitchen--and service that can be painfully slow if you are hoping to return to Washington that night. It is a restaurant that would be well received even in locales with more French restaurants than Charlottesville. And it is open on Sundays.
Gathering a Brunch Bunch--Brunchtime in Rockville nowadays is as efficient as marketing. Within a few steps of each other in Wintergreen shopping center are several brunches-for-the-browsing, both Eastern and Western. First stop could be the Washington outlet of Baltimore's Bagel Place chain. The bagels are fresh and crusty, in the usual variety of flavors. And while they aren't to be compared with the chewy and weighty best of Manhattan, they are nevertheless respectable. And you can buy the usual fixings to go with them, sandwiches or even bagel pizzas. Next door you can eat in or carry out dim sum from China Harbor, which is special not for its particular quality or wide variety, but for the fact that from noon to 2 p.m. weekends there is a noodle-pulling demonstration, and the resultant noodles are served several ways. As for the dumplings, the steamed ones are the best of the lot, for the fried ones are greasy and most of the dough wraps are heavy. This is, however, one of the few dim sum places to serve almond milk and unsweetened fried dough in long, thin baseball-bat shapes, a kind of unsweetened doughnut that is often dunked in the almond milk. If you like your doughnuts sweet, next door there is a doughnut shop, and just across the driveway you can find The Fishery's fish and chips. Rockville Pike's fast-food blitz has taken on new style.
Less is More--Along with refurbishing its surroundings, the Mayflower Hotel, now owned by the Stouffer chain, has done some refurbishing of its menus. What we liked in the Carvery was the "Light & Lean" menu, not just for its calorie count (each entree under 450 calories, not exactly rock bottom) but because the dishes we tried were awfully good, fresh and pretty. Chicken marsala was a boneless breast saut,eed not a moment too long, bedded on ripe and lightly browned papaya, topped with mushrooms and a translucent marsala sauce. The large portion--at $9.20--was far greater than what one usually considers diet food. There are also veal piccata ($9.40), antipasto salad ($6.45) and a pasta salad with chicken, shrimp, spinach, cucumbers and scallions ($7.95) that was refreshing enough in taste to overcome our boredom with pasta salads. This one had crunch and a tangy soy-mustard dressing that came on the side and thus allowed even more control over the meal's caloric cost. The menu says that with the "Light & Lean" menu bread and butter will be served on request only. The waiter seemed not to have read the menu, but the thought was nice, and the meal overall a pleasant surprise.
In Miami They Come In For a Lion and Go Out With a Lamb--You've probably heard that Dominique has taken some of his culinary zoo to Miami--following in the footsteps of Tiberio and The Palm--by opening a tropical branch of his Washington restaurant. He says he was serving more than 400 dinners a night before the members of the kitchen crew even found a place to hang their toques. The restaurant, which is in the still-unfinished Alexander Hotel, has the stained and etched glass, oriental carpets, highrise souffl,es and roses for the ladies familiar to Dominique-goers here, and the menu reads much the same (from rattlesnake to ostrich, with quail and ducks from his Eastern Shore farm). But there is a subtle trendiness. One might call this Dominique's Fitness Center, for the hike from entrance to dining room is as long as a jogging track, and the menu is as heavy as any wrestler might require to practice his lifting. So what do they graze on from this menu of exotica? According to Dominique, the big seller is rack of lamb.
Funny, It Doesn't Look Like a Potato Chip--Chalk up another one for Washington's increasing worldliness. El Bodegon, the Spanish restaurant near 17th and R, now serves tapas--Spanish hors d'oeuvres--at its bar. There are about four a day, little dishes of perhaps fried squid or chorizo, excellent Serrano ham or flaky empanadas, each for for $1.95 at cocktail hour and just right with sherry and salty black olives. You can also make a bar lunch of tapas here.
Teaching an Old Rib Restaurant New Tricks-- Not to be outdone by all the new rib restaurants in Washington, the old ones are gearing up for the competition. The Rib on Rollins Avenue in Rockville is leading the resistance with an "early-bird special." From 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., a dinner goes for $5.95 to $6.95. That's about half the price of the regular dinners, and delivers onion soup; a half-rack of baby back ribs, a half-chicken or a six-ounce steak; cole slaw; french fries; roll and butter and ice cream for dessert. The Rib also has expanded its desserts and runs a daily luncheon special.