Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight; for dinner, Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; for dinner Sunday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V, CB, Air Canada, Hilton Hotel credit card. Reservations recommended. Valet parking available. Prices: At lunch, appetizers $1.75-$8.75, entrees $5.75-$11.50, desserts $2-$3; at dinner, appetizers $3-$9.75, entrees $9.75- $23. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $35 a person.
About a quarter-century ago, Trader Vic's opened here in
an era when Polynesian food was considered the ultimate in sophistication and pina coladas were exotic. It
was a time when people threw around titles like "Doctor" in order to get a table at such a successful restaurant. (And in those days, before beepers made doctors unpopular with restaurateurs, such ploys worked.)
But now stir-fried vegetables are home fare and pina coladas sound like yesterday's hit parade. Even so, Trader Vic's saw fit to undergo a million-dollar renovation; it reopened in December after being gutted and totally rebuilt.
As far as I can tell, the renovation missed the point. What was wonderful about the old Trader Vic's was its fantasy, its outrageousness. The cross between Walt Disney and Tarzan. The utter silliness of drinking from pineapple and coconut shells in downtown Washington in the company of giant totems.
Some of the grasscloth-and-carved-mask theme prevails, and the giant barbecue ovens remain on display behind their glass walls, but the South Seas fantasy land is upstaged by what Trader Vic's calls a "nautical environment" of red leather banquettes and sheer ordinariness, so that the largest room looks like an upgraded coffee shop. The most exotic thing about the new Trader Vic's is the service.
The curiousness starts with drinks. Yes, there is still that four-page listing of Mai Tais and Scorpions and Tiki Puka Pukas, though it would take an investigative reporter to get anyone even off the record to reveal what you might expect from "Babalu . . . $4.50. Old debbil Rum conjures throbbing drumbeats and black magic." So you order something and hope it includes flavors that you like, and realize that most of the drinks taste pretty much the same anyway. You'd be better off with wine, because the choices from California -- by the glass and bottle -- are reasonably priced and good selections.
The menu suggests appetizers to enjoy with your drinks. So at dinner one night we rattled off our appetizer order as the waiter nodded in understanding. After all that, he decided in retrospect that he should have written it down, so we started all over. And so went the service, lavish but sometimes sinking into a hilarious slastick of misunderstanding. The times a maitre d' took over the ordering we did just fine, but otherwise we had to contend with dishes that never arrived or arrived out of order, duplications that were not explained ahead, business lunches of two hours because of a slow kitchen or a disappearing waiter. We particularly had a difficult time in getting straight answers about what the menu poetry actually meant.
There is still the fun of flossy service by waiters fussing over your dish on a tableside cart. And appetizers are still served with such flourishes as a porcelain butterfly to hold dipping sauces (a standard hot mustard and a ketchupy spiced tomato puree that could use revamping), and metal-and-glass serving dishes enclosing candle warmers. Main dishes at dinner are presented on charming footed platters, and the fresh pineapple at dessert is still elaborately cut and served in its shell. The drink decorations have been pared down from coconut shells and pineapple spears to mere glasses (and a hideous porcelain skull for hot drinks) and a pineapple cube with maraschino cherry. The paper parasols have given way to a mere cartoon- character plastic stirrer.
As for the cooking, it may be the most erratic in town. How can the same kitchen that fries thin, light and grease-free crab rangoon (wontons filled with crab and cream cheese) serve crispy duck that tastes so leached of juices and flavor that you wonder if it's been through the whole renovation? And how can such lightly crusted and carefully timed fried shrimp keep company with scallops mimosa that taste bitter and overcooked? Cheese bings -- fried cheese fritters oozing and spicy -- are perfectly respectable, and much more difficult to carry off than spiced chicken wings; yet those wings tasted old and tired and heavily dosed with cinnamon. Even the egg rolls have a certain promise in their light crepe covering and expert frying, but their filling tastes bland and most prominently of bean sprouts.
What's reliable? Anything barbecued in the Chinese ovens, as far as I can tell. The Indonesian lamb roast, which the staff highly recommends, is a beautiful rack of lamb, well trimmed, nicely marinated and faintly smoky from its oven searing. Its peanut sauce accompaniment is a very thick paste rather than a sauce, but it would be hard to fault the lamb itself. At lunch there are two changing choices from the barbecue ovens, and the several I have tried have all been juicy, well seasoned and excellently cooked meats -- good values at $7.50 to $9.50. (But that dinnertime rack of lamb at $19.50 could hardly be called a value.) Another delectable dish at dinner was Steamed Salmon, Chinese Style, the fish meltingly soft and permeated with soy, ginger, sesame and scallion. And while chicken curry was tame, its creamy sauce mildly seasoned and faintly sweet, it was meaty and pleasant, and accompanied by a cute compartmented tray of condiments -- raisins, sunflower seeds, diced tomato salad, coconut and the like. Even fettuccine with morels and sweetbreads was pleasant, but not quite up to its $14.75 price tag.
Admittedly it is hard to evaluate a menu that stretches to six pages of type and ranges from filet of beef with walnut oil, marrow and taro sticks to chicken chow mein. But the overall impression is that if you stray far from the barbecue ovens you are in uncharted territory. Won Ton Dumplings, for instance, were noodles with all texture boiled out of them and meat filling with no taste of its own. Sauces are more soy and gloss than depth. And stir-fried dishes are no better than your corner Chinese restaurant's. Salads can be truly dreadful, whether plain greens in a heavily salty dark dressing or Bengal Seafood that tastes like a waldorf salad with fish pur,ee -- it is a scoop of watery crab and other gummy unrecognizable seafood bits tossed with raisins, pine nuts and celery, topped with sweetish curried mayonnaise. Gruesome. Malay tips of beef, too, have that lowest-common-denominator curry flavor, which is too mild and sweet to be interesting.
So Trader Vic's can be a good value at lunch if you stick to the simple meat dishes, and reasonable fun at dinner if you are similarly careful and don't mind a high price for your pu pu appetizers and barbecue or steamed fish. But exotic and weird are often synonymous here, and Trader Vic's now seems less South Pacific than Suburbia.