Morrison House, 116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria. 838-8000. Open for lunch 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, for dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, for brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. AE, V, DC. Reservations required. Prices: Fixed-price brunch $20. At lunch, appetizers $5 to $8.50, entrees $11 to $14, fixed-price lunch $22. At dinner, appetizers
$6.50 to $13.50, main dishes $16 to $22, fixed-price diners gourmands $55 to $65 a person. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $55 to $85 a person.
THE FIRST SURPRISE is Morrison House: a 47-room inn reached by twin curved staircases framing a stone fountain, almost hidden behind its South Alfred Street entrance. The second surprise is its restaurant: Le Chardon d'Or serves some of the most sophisticated new food to reach our plates since the reopening of Le Pavillon, which it mightily resembles. Clearly the chef is a talented disciple of Yannick Cam.
Le Chardon d'Or's two rooms of about nine tables each are decorated with luxury, if not imagination. Chandeliers are Baccarat, draperies and table linens are weighty, and the silverware is handsome and elaborate, so that eating feels as elegant as it looks and tastes. From the butler's greeting to the cut crystal stemware, no extravagance is spared. Tables are large, as is the space between them. Flowers are in crystal vases and in botanical prints; mirrors are gilt-edged; drapery is in generous swags; sideboards look antique, as do expensive whimseys such as an intricate brass decanting machine. Le Chardon d'Or looks like the dining room of a grand home.
The wine list is also luxurious, though moderate prices are sprinkled among the breathtaking ones. Wines by the glass make an enticing list -- 16 still wines and two champagnes last time I checked. California is well represented; Virginia wines add a rthur Bartow accompaniments.
Main dishes, served on large, oval white porcelain plates, are arranged with pretty vegetables -- juliennes and batons, set in precise geometry. Some are explosions of flavor: Grilled pigeon breast, for example, was rare and gamey and moistened with strong, dark, vinegared pepper sauce. With it were brussels sprouts as a confit -- even if you've never liked brussels sprouts, you can't resist this. Another irresistible accompaniment was a marrow custard smoky with bacon, which garnished duck breast in a fine intense red wine sauce.
But the main dishes showed the kitchen's flaws. Lamb tenderloin with turnips was one day wonderful, the lamb crusty and rosy, the turnips a rich and earthy contrast. Another day it tasted less distinctive, in part because all the vegetables were nearly raw that evening, so their flavors were less prominent. Likewise, veal with mushrooms and sage butter was one night marvelous, thick veal grilled with crosshatch marks, faintly pink inside and with a smoky taste that was not eclipsed by the light and subtle sage butter, another day less memorable; in both cases the earthy and buttery mushrooms were delicious. Liver, sliced thin and breaded with brioche crumbs and mustard seed, tasted of too much graininess and lacked succulence.
Fish, flown in from France, was crisp-skinned and delicately sauced, but not as sparkling fresh as a local fish could have been and not as exciting as the other dishes. Lobster with tomato and basil was a lovely presentation but a bit undercooked and lacked personality. Oddly, the rolls were ordinary on my last visit, though on my first they were glossy and crusty with a chewy interior.
Desserts should be seen at least, if not eaten. There might be a hot tart of apple and calvados or of figs, buttery and crisp and golden. Raspberries in puff pastry looks like a precision-made napoleon, layered with whole raspberries. Milk chocolate mousse tastes unexciting, but is prettily topped with rolls of shaved chocolate; and mousse of cassis berries not only has a sweet tanginess, but is jeweled with whipped cream rosettes, tiny fresh berries and mint sprigs. Sherbets -- particularly grapefruit and pineapple -- are delightfully intense, and if there are profiteroles with ice cream, you need go not farther in finding a delicious ending. But dinner goes on -- to chocolate truffles in chocolate cups, to chocolate covered citrus peel and molded chocolates, then tiny tarts and cookies to accompany coffee.
The staff still need some refining, for some of the service is extremely suave, some noisy and clumsy. But the subtlest explanation has been devised for the tipping policy: "Le Chardon d'Or personnel do not expect gratuities, since a 15 percent service charge is added to checks."
It adds up to an elaborate showcase for some fine and beautiful food. The question is whether Washington will support more restaurants of such caliber at such prices, or whether couples spending $150 will want to seek only name brands -- Le Pavillon and Jean Louis -- rather than risking their investment on a newcomer.