Mount Vernon Inn Mount Vernon, Va. 780-0011.
Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 9:30 p.m. AE, MC, V, Choice. Reservations suggested. Prices: Lunch entrees $3.50 to $5.25; dinner appetizers $4.75 to $5.25, entrees $11.50 to $15.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip, about $30 to $35 a person.
YOUR LAST MEMORIES of Mount Vernon may be drippy ice cream cones, hot dogs in foil and squirming children. But when the snack bar is closed and the tourists have left for the day, the Mount Vernon Inn -- the restaurant at the gates of the estate -- remains open, attempting to lure the locals in for a nighttime visit.
Remodeling efforts have been under way since 1981, when the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association took over the complex that houses the inn, snack bar and souvenir shop. Last October the restaurant opened with its dining rooms refurbished -- a subtle colonial setting, with fireplaces, candlelight and walls of wedgewood blue. The final stage of the plan was instituted with the dinner menu, a mix of the traditional and the trendy. The lunch menu (which continues to cater to a tourist crowd interested in something other than the fast food served next door) consists primarily of sandwiches and a few entrees.
This restaurant's success depends largely on your expectations. If dining at the Mount Vernon Inn makes you think of mushy, nondescript food, then you will be pleasantly surprised by its inventive ideas, creative presentations and more-than-reasonably priced wine list. But once the Mount Vernon Inn enters the serious restaurant category, it must be compared with other establishments in its price range and genre. In this light, it needs to be more of a winner. The foundations are good, and the management is clearly trying hard -- offering after-dinner ports to diners in the sitting room, handing out computerized questionnaires regarding food and service. But if you don't chose carefully, you can order a disaster; the kitchen has a difficult time with sauces and is prone to overcooking.
Good baking is clearly one of the kitchen's attributes, which it shows off first with its homemade breads and last with its homemade cobblers. (Not all the desserts are made in-house, however, which brings up the question: why would a restaurant that has a decent baker buy and serve a dried- out and amateurish chocolate mousse cake?)
That bread basket is stocked with homemade crackers, large rounds that are rich enough to do without butter, and Irish soda bread, an otherwise exemplary bread until the kitchen started spiking it (or rather overloading it) with caraway seeds. Whole wheat bread, a dense yeasty bread with a crusty surface, is clearly the standout in this crowd.
Among the appetizers, caviar in puff pastry has the greatest possibilities. One or two oozes of caviar is about all these pastries will yield, however; the dish demands more caviar or a smaller pastry. Mount Vernon Stuffed Chicken Wings is reasonably successful, a spiced stuffing of minced crab meat, mushrooms and chicken encased in a lacy-crisp batter and accompanied by a sickly sweet sauce.
Salads are strong here: crunchy shrimp in an appetizer were fanned onto large, soft lettuce leaves and artichoke hearts and were then drizzled with capers; a roquefort and walnut salad consisted of a generous plate of greens loaded with pieces of walnuts and hefty chunks (not crumbs) of roquefort. (Eating tip: use the homemade cracker as a pusher for the lettuce; it will soak up the vinaigrette and is delicious with cheese spread on top.)
Among the first courses, Oysters Scarbrough is probably the only real disaster; fresh and plump oysters on the half- shell (they can be ordered as is) are buried beneath a heavy mixture of parmesan cheese, garlic and white wine so that you end up rummaging around the half-shell to dig up the seafood. The dish is an example of what you should never do to oysters.
Although this is a kitchen with a colonial affiliation and a regular list of game entrees, the mesquite side of the menu is its stronger half. Mesquite-grilled meats, in fact, are likely to be the best dishes here. A large grilled veal chop, smothered with wild mushrooms and perfumed with smoke, is slightly crusty on the outside, pink on the inside. Likewise, the mesquite-grilled filet mignon is a flavorful piece of meat with just enough hint of barbecue. Both are accompanied with light sauces that complement rather than overpower.
The mesquite-grilled fish has been slightly less successful, a special of red snapper a thick slab of fish fillet properly singed on the outside, but somewhat overdone on the inside so that the dry flesh required a generous squeeze of lemon juice to moisten it.
Game entrees tend to be either overcooked or accompanied by unsuccesful sauces. The tiny sauteed quail are served with a game sauce sweet enough to coat a candy apple. The rabbit tenderloin, a stark and stunning presentation of lightly fried meat coated with mustard sauce, is cooked to toughness. The baked pheasant with wild rice dressing, a special one evening, was likewise dry inside and its game sauce too strong, perhaps, for some tastes.
Among the daily specials, Lamb Wellington was a particular disaster, a pretty puff pastry surrounded by a pool of acrid sauce and filled with slices of lamb resembling meatloaf in taste and texture.
Two well-prepared vegetables come with all the entrees. They range from slender, young asparagus to crunchy snow peas and potatoes of some sort. And obvious care is taken with platter presentation. The sculpted carrot is perhaps the most fantastic garniture, a curled splash of orange that looks like an entanglement of octopus.
The wine list, too, is worth a special mention, because its prices are nowhere near the usual markup rate. Piper Sonoma Brut for $15, or Stag's Leap and Mondavi wines in the $10 to $15 category, are almost competing with retail prices.
For lunch, if you're at Mount Vernon and want more than the hot dog wrapped in foil, you can get a decent enough meal, but it's probably not worth a special weekend outing. And for dinner? The restaurant is clearly cooking better than some of its closest competition in Old Town. But if it wants to draw a steady stream of nighttime visitors down the 15- mile Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, it will have to improve on it weaknesses and learn to capitalize on its strong points.