7145 Main St., Clifton, Va. 703/830-4111 Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations suggested. MC, V. Prices: most dinner appetizers $2 to $4, entrees $10 to $15. Complete dinner with house wine, tax and tip about $25 to $35 per person.
CLIFTON IS A HAMLET prettily nestled in the Fairfax County hills near Bull Run, an idyllic island in a rolling sea of greenery. It's the kind of place where people live in painstakingly restored mid-19th-century houses with historical markers, where children and dogs romp on tree-shaded common -- a town right out of John Greenleaf Whittier (even if the barefoot boy now wears Nikes), a place where most people wold have liked to grow up but hardly anyone did.
One of the few businesses in Clifton is the Heart in Hand restaurant, small, self-consciously countryish, rough hewn yet genteel, with a simple menu that combines a bit of old-and new-American cuisine. This certainly is not a country restaurant on a par with the Inn at Little Washington or L'Auberge Chez Francois -- the food is mainly pleasant rather than memorable. But the prices are moderate, the drive is delightful, and if you top off your brunch or dinner with a leisurely stroll through the town, you'll have had an uncommonly satisfying few hours.
The restaurant, a store in bygone days, is located in an old, rambling wooden building next to the railroad tracks. An outer area where folk art is displayed leads to two small dining rooms, both cozily candlelit in the evening and decorated with samples of quilting. There are wide-planked floors, bare wood tables, and those straight-backed chairs with cane seats that van Gogh was so fond of painting at Arles. (We hope van Gogh didn't actually have to sit in those chairs -- it would have been enough to make a person paint standing up.) There's a tiny outdoor patio, too, for warm-weather dining.
For starters, the soups are a good bet. Creole crab gumbo is properly thick, rich, peppery-hot and nicely herbed, though strangely lacking in crab. The chicken with wild rice and vegetable-beef soups, occasional specials, are robust and down-home. Oysters casino are a good appetizer special. So is "Texas caviar," chilled black-eyed peas in a peppery vinaigrette dressing that makes a refreshing alternative to a salad. Not that the salads need an alternative. The citrus dressing, a house specialty, is a nicely tart, aromatic mixture, and the salad with gorgonzola and toasted pecans nicely replays the age-old magic between cheese and nuts.
Perhaps the best entree in the house, a sometimes-available special, is blackened grouper, a thick filet of firm, fresh fish coated with herbs and black pepper and quickly seared in a superheated skillet. The trick here is to get the skin dark and flavorful without reducing it to a char, and it's carried off perfectly. The catfish, lightly fried in a crusty, peppery cornmeal batter, is another winner. But the sole in parchment is a lackluster rendition, zipless and a bit mushy. Veal Heart in Hand is a pleasant, stewlike dish with good quality veal medallions and fresh vegetables in a mild sauce laced with sweet white wine. Just as pleasant is chicken Suzanne, breast meat nicely succulent and fried in butter. Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency to broil good meats to death here. Beautiful, thick lamb chops came to the table brown inside (we hadn't been asked how we liked them), and a generous slab of pork loin was dried out beyond rescue. Barbecued shrimp are expensive (six for $15), messy to eat (the unpeeled shrimp swim in sauce), and ordinary (the sauce is oversweet and oversmoky).
There are a couple of excellent desserts. The pecan pie is the real thing, with plenty of nuts and a good, fluffy custard that's blessedly free of gumminess. The chocolate pie is even better, the nearly black, pudding-textured filling strong on the chocolate, easy on the sugar. But the homemade ice cream, some of it crystalline, some gummy-tasting, proves that making something on the premises isn't automatically a virtue. There's also an occasional Irish whiskey cake with enough alcohol to fuel a rocket.
Brunch here seems more successful, on the whole, than dinner. Granted, the brunch menu is very short, but the food seems to suffer from no bumps and some of the dishes are superlative. The Spanish omelet, for example, is a paragon: a fluff of eggs, cooked so they're just this side of runniness within, with the sparest touch of cheddar to add flavor, a nicely peppery, chunky tomato sauce, and a dollop of sour cream on top. An omelet's omelet. Why do so many restaurants,even good ones, mess up pancakes and french toast? And why do we keep ordering them when we know they're going to be awful? Maybe we were waiting for the ones at Heart in Hand: airy, feather-light, fine-textured pancakes, free of grittiness and oiliness -- the kind, in other words, you'd make at home. And french toast that's a model of restraint, neither overegged, overoiled, overfried, nor oversugared. (But why are the pancake and French toast portions so small?)
The service at Heart in Hand is unpredictable, to say the least, and finesse is not its strong point. Early on a week night, when business is light and the young, likable staff is at its best, things are likely to go beautifully. But during a busier time you may find yourself the victim of klutziness-in-extremis. On one of our more unlucky visits it took nearly three hours for a simple dinner, most of te time spent in waiting. (And those chairs don't make the waiting easy.)
The final word? Heart in Hand is probably worth a gamble. The food is mainly good, the restaurant pretty, the price moderate and the town irresistible. But wait awhile after this review appears. Then aim for a week night if you can, and be sure to have a reservation. A sudden influx could swamp this place.