A MILLION CALORIES LATER
TO MARK THE END OF 1985, I've been looking back over restaurants I've visited outside of Washington this year; most of them I have written about already, but still there are some that slipped past my pen, from nearby Virginia, San Francisco and Europe. Here the highlights of those travels -- my gustatory slide show.
Highest Yield From Low Expectations -- parks are rarely amusing in terms of food. But Busch Gardens in Virginia has some delicious surprises. The spareribs, for instance, are smoky and crusty, and the barbecued brisket matches them (though the barbecue sauce itself is no more than decent). Even the accompanying coleslaw is terrific -- fresh and crunchy, with a creamy dressing clinging to the red and green cabbage. Just don't go overboard in your hopes; for example, the wursts -- except the fine juicy knackwurst -- are still waterlogged, the pizza in the Oktoberfest restaurant is what you ought to expect from a German restaurant's pizza, and through the window in the Italian kitchen you can watch the "chocolate mousse" being spooned from Nifda Chocolate Pudding cans.
Shore Food With the Most Sure Hand -- Virginia Beach revealed some unexpected but happy surprises. Yorgi's is an inventive little restaurant with quirky and good food, though priced high considering that not all the experimenting works. Even more unexpected is Gus's. It looked like a disaster; it was in a Ramada Inn still under construction (or reconstruction) when we tried it. This barn of a place was furnished with more kinds of plastic than I knew existed -- leatherette seats, plastic-faced walls, Lucite-sealed tables. But the she- crab soup was creamy and sherried, filled with fresh crab and left unsullied by anything else. And the fish of the day was a very fresh whole baby flounder, perfectly broiled so that the skin was crisp and the meat fluffy -- and bargain-priced at a mere $6 for lunch. Freshly fried oysters were in a light and lacy batter. The hush puppies had a pleasant oniony flavor but were the texture of waterlogged golf balls, the french fries were stiff and dry, and salads and desserts reminded one more of motel coffee shop.
Shining Light in San Francisco -- but not as many as I expected. The restaurant is clearly a star in itself. The walls are filled with great menus of the world and food memorabilia. The open kitchen is like seeing backstage at a hit show, and the diners wear everything from black tie to jeans. The food, too, is dramatic: Risotto with Alaskan Spot Prawns, Garlic, Thyme & Cepe Butter, for instance. So how does it all taste? Halibut was so fresh it squeaked, cut thin and probably cooked right on the plate to keep it from being overdone; it was simple and fine. Chicken breast with black beans, tomatillo salsa and lime-chili sour cream was a delicious refinement of earthy traditions. In fact, plenty of the food was tantalizing, particularly the simpler things. Then there were pasta shells stuffed with gooey brain pur,ee and a complex sauce that seemed to cancel out all the flavors; and a fairly ordinary poached salmon on shredded cucumbers with yellow-pepper butter sauce. In other words, there were some top performances at Stars, but it wasn't San Francisco's best show. Campton Place had more straightforward food, and though it is inventive in the New American mode, chef Brad Ogden stops himself three or four ingredients short of what the other new chefs are using in constructing a dish. It has its hotel aspects: The portions are large, and the menu ranges from the exotic to the everyday. In all, it is good cooking without being tricky.
Square One is more clever, more eclectic, more casual. It also is so ambitious as to make its own stupendous, gutsy, earthy country bread. The menu changes daily, so there is no point looking for the dishes I had, but I wouldn't pass up the fish -- swordfish with a sparkle of ginger and an accompaniment of grilled eggplant, or lemony salmon wrapped in crisped grape leaves with a hail of pine nuts and raisins -- and the soups have depth and soul.
Most Telling Remark -- Once grand and now severely shabby is the Chamberlin Hotel in Old Point Comfort, Va., across from Norfolk. But it still has pretensions on its menu. "What is Veal Doria?" we asked our waiter. "I have no idea, madame," was the sum of his answer.
News Amidst the Good Old Days -- brunswick stew and sally lunn in Old Williamsburg, you can enter the 20th century at the Trellis, that city's most famous non-Colonial restaurant. Its airy dining room with cushions on the banquettes and batiks on the walls is far from hard- edge contemporary, but its menu on the blackboard is a recitation of today's trends -- mesquite, pasta, sea beans, walnut oil dressings and goat cheese stuffings. It is food of luscious color (red pepper pasta against brightly colored vegetables) and vibrant flavors (crab with Smithfield ham on chili cornbread). Very old fashioned, though, are the portions: Soups are in sizable crocks, appetizer pastas are a bowlful the size of an entree, and the chicken is double breasted. The best of the dishes I tried were pastas, from the roasted pepper pasta to the beef tenderloin with black beans on roasted garlic pasta.
The World's All-Stars Revisited -- After many years of remembering the duck in a deep, dark wine sauce and broccoli and foie gras terrine in which the broccoli was as delectable as the foie gras, I returned to Girardet restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland, to find the food no less stellar. Many call this the best restaurant in Europe -- or maybe the world; I would crowd the field a little more, but certainly include it. I was reminded, though, that food is not all: A crying baby at the next table and clouds of cigar smoke from the other side of the room sapped some of the flavor of Fredy Girardet's cooking. And several dishes were sadly oversalted. Even so, I'll spend many more years remembering his velvety and crisp-crusted duck confit with lemon zest, his langoustine saut,eed to a magical intensity of flavor and arranged on potato pur,ee.
Alain Senderens had also left me with incomparable taste memories from his L'Archestrate in Paris. But now he has moved to that Parisian landmark, Lucas Carton, and leaves me also with incomparable visual memories of Art Nouveau woodwork and vast windows overlooking La Madeleine. His food in this new, much larger restaurant? Better than ever. Adventurous seasonings with a subtle hand, the culmination being poached duck topped with a thick black coating of caramelized honey with caraway, cardamom, cumin and pepper, accompanied by two pur,ees, one of which was an extraordinary blend of fresh dates with caraway and ginger. Then there are his ravioli, as thin as gauze, knobby with their filling of bay scallops, zucchini skin and thyme flowers, so hauntingly delicious that I see zucchini in a new light.
My resolution for the New Year? To find more restaurants as brilliant, as ambitious, as intent on serving us well as I found in the old year.