Open daily for breakfast 7 to 10:30 a.m., for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Reservations. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Valet parking. Prices: At lunch, $8 to $15.50; at dinner, appetizers $3 to 9.50, main dishes $14.50 to $19.50. Sunday brunch $19.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip more than $40 a person. French velour banquettes and Rosenthal porcelain; marbleized wallpaper and tucked silk lamp shades; walls and tables the color of peach and of pale salmon, reflected in etched glass dividers: the garnishes look delicious in the multi- million-dollar renovation of the Embassy Row Hotel and its new restaurant, La Reserve. The room--seating 74 at reasonably private tables--is new, the chef is new, the menu lists the newest food fashions.
But it is still hotel food.
What is it about hotel food? Here is a small restaurant with its own in-house butcher and its own pastry kitchen producing the ice cream and croissants. It serves excellent smoked salmon, its brie is impeccably runny, its fruit bowls hold the season's plumpest raspberries and blueberries. La Reserve's veal is elegantly pale, its beef regally red. It has the space and the staff to fry pommes souffl,e to accompany main courses and then to serve them in napkin flower baskets, to carve a tomato rose for every plate, to stuff ravioli with foie gras just for the soup. The refrigerator stocks caviar in two colors, quail eggs, sea urchins and wild mushrooms. There is a chef, Franz Mitterer, who has worked in hotel kitchens of superb reputation, and a sommelier, Roger Grison, who practically had a fan club at Chez Maria.
And then: We ordered a wine--at $35--that was not only expensive but overpriced, and found it maderized. When we complained, we were told the wine was all right. We decided that since we found it unpleasant and wanted wine to drink with our meal we would order another bottle anyway. Only later did Grison agree that the wine had gone bad and offer to replace it.
We could have been wrong, or known nothing about wine, but a new restaurant trying to establish itself does not throw its customers to the winds for a bottle of wine.
The room was nearly empty, but we waited excruciatingly long for our appetizers. Later our main dishes arrived under magnificent silver cloches, which sat imposingly in front of three of us while fish was boned for the fourth. Then three waiters, a deep breath, a unison lifting of the cloches to reveal: each of us had been served the wrong dish.
These are matters that can be easily rectified. Other problems are stickier. The menu sounds exciting: consomm,e with foie gras ravioli, raw tenderloin slices with sour cream and caviar, lobster casserole with sea urchin sauce, sweetbread salad with quail eggs and artichoke bottoms as starters. Two dozen main dishes include duck breast with lime, veal tenderloin in pastry crust with black mushrooms, veal kidneys with honey and sherry, loin of venison with parsley pur,ee, tenderloin of beef with scallops and roe. The new-cuisine palette is fully represented.
The waiter admits, though, that the "fresh duck liver" comes from a can, and the double consomm,e tastes as if it does too. We found satisfaction among the appetizers--lentil salad had nicely firm lentils and bits of bacon, mussel soup was velvety on the tongue and briny to the palate, lobster with sea urchin had a pleasant creamy sauce though no clear evidence of sea urchin. But the dressing had been forgotten on the sweetbread salad (I hope that was the problem), the raw beef was icy, and though the duck p.at,e tasted good, like a spicy meatloaf in a fluted crust, it was homey rather than sophisticated.
We would have been ahead had we stopped there, but we went on to main dishes. Prime rib was well trimmed, thick and tender, though it had been browned on the bottom of the slice and overwhelmed by tinny-tasting pan juices. Veal in pastry tasted steamed and bleached of its juices, but its mushroom topping and pastry wrapping were good. The worst was an over-the-hill and overcooked Dover sole; the best was duck breast of deliciously gamy flavor, cooked rare but then topped with a candy-sweet lime sauce. The accompaniments saved the day: peeled and perfectly cooked fresh asparagus and those cunning little pommes souffl,ees that are a delicate chore for a kitchen.
Dessert offered little further enhancement. The sherbets tasted like reconstituted dry fruit-drink mixes; a mint parfait with chocolate mousse tasted like a mint ice pop molded around curdled, grainy chocolate filling; hazelnut ice cream was all right, though served in a limp and tasteless cookie cup; and tropical fruit with basil had no discernible basil flavor though it was perfectly fine fruit.
Sunday brunch follows a similar pattern, a better start than finish. The waiters are solicitous; the buffet looks handsome and is kept tidy and filled throughout the service. You can start with something like a ramos gin fizz or mango daiquiri, or go right to the pink sparkling wine, one glass of which, our waiter said, comes with brunch.
First came a basket of breakfast pastries--look for the cheese danish, far and away the best of the lot--and then a trip to the buffet, which is wisely restricted to cold foods. You order hot dishes from a list of entrees, but do so early, for the kitchen has repeatedly been slow.
It is a fine buffet, with smoked salmon sliced to order (unfortunately to be accompanied by only indifferent rye or pumpernickel); a soft, spoonable and very good whitefish tartare; a deliciously piquant linguine salad with prosciutto and peas; several good vegetable salads and ripe cheeses; oysters and clams. This is not an everything-under-the-sun buffet, but a well-chosen and ample variety.
The hot foods are another matter. There was a dry and tasteless omelet; veal ,eminc,e with a bitter undertone, though in a nice cream sauce; salt-crusted beef rare and juicy but inedibly salty because the crust was left on during the slicing, probably because it makes a magnificent presentation.
Desserts may not have been memorable, but were beautiful and tasted better than those at dinner; besides, the berries and especially the large strawberries to dip in melted chocolate are a grand enough finish.
We still have plenty of reservations about La Reserve.