8521 Leesburg Pike, Tysons Corner, Va., 556-0100; Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., until midnight Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner from 4 to 10 p.m. V, MC, CB, AE, DC. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: At lunch appetizers and salads $2.20 to $7.95, main courses $4.95 to $7.95; at dinner appetizers and salads $2.20 to $8.95, main courses $5.95 to $17.95. Full dinner with drinks or wine, tax and tip about $25 to $35 a person.
FERN BARS HAVE MATURED. No longer are the plants hanging and the french fries frozen. The greenery nowadays is more substantial -- giant potted palms, indoor trees -- and the emphasis is on the homemade, from the bread to the gelato and sorbet (once known as ice cream and sherbet).
Fedora Cafe embodies all that we once sneered at: It is a chain restaurant; it is part of a conglomerate that encompasses Charley's Place, Hogate's, Devon Bar & Grill and Houlihan's; and it is a singles bar to rival Clyde's. Fedora's menu is a catalogue of today's trends.
It hardly inspires confidence, yet it works. Well, most of the time.
First, you've got to sit in the right place. The enormous dining room is lusciously appointed, with tiny floor tiles of black, white and gray, polished mahogany booths, updated tavern lamps hanging over the tables and a magnificence of stained glass forming a lighted pillar in the rear dining room. It is also an office-building restaurant, its window walls overlooking pure parking lot. Thus, if you sit up front it is merely a handsomely furnished shopping-strip dining room, while if you sit in the back it is a distinctive and comfortable away-from-the-world environment. Since not everyone can sit in the back room, it would help if the shades were drawn in the front.
At the entrance you are greeted by an exceedingly outgoing staff and a case of stunning pastries. Both live up to their promise. There is also a display of salads, which tend to look mushy and sometimes dried out. Unfortunately, they also live up to their promise.
Dinner begins with a small loaf of light, crusty homemade bread kept warm on a heated stone and wrapped in a napkin. Nice touch. It holds you while you pore over a selection of interesting things to drink: alcoholic exotica such as amaretto with apple juice, aperitifs from pernod to lillet, five different champagne cocktails and a couple of champagnes by the glass; and nonalcoholic bottled waters, imported soft drinks and a small but distinctive wine list.
The menu allows you to construct all kinds of meals, from a light snack to a traditional meat-and-potatoes dinner. The dozen or so first courses are intriguing: minestrone, carpaccio, wild mushroom strudel, fried almond-crusted brie, mussels, fried ravioli, marinated squid, a pa te', an antipasto platter, salads and a shrimp cocktail accompanied by jicama salad. And that only brings you to the pizzas and pastas, not even to the grilled foods -- duck, rack of lamb, steaks, seafoods -- and other main courses of saute'ed veal or liver, chicken breast and the inevitable blackened redfish. Plus daily specials and compelling side dishes such as fried polenta, russet potato baked on rock salt and french fried potatoes or onion rings with malt vinegar.
It might not make nutritional sense, but the best of the meals would be an array of appetizers and side dishes. Where Fedora Cafe went awry on my visits was with the main dishes and salads. The Eggplant Monterey is an appetizer, but enough for a light dinner. A meltingly soft and crusty fried eggplant case is filled with bay scallops, shrimp, crayfish, mussels or whatever is on hand, plus artichokes in a wonderful tangy white wine cream. Mussels steamed with white wine, garlic, cream and mustard are equally wonderful, the cream faintly sweet but balanced by the mustard; we loved it even though the mussels were sandy. I haven't been much taken by the salads -- alternately too sweet, too tart and unbalanced.
I suppose every modern-day cafe' must have pizza, and Fedora's starts with a good crust, light and puffy, though sometimes not cooked enough. I haven't found a topping combination that works, though. The peppers and sausage with tomato sauce was thick with cheese but the toppings had little flavor except salt. And the white clam pizza with garlic, oregano, parmesan and mozzarella would have been delectable if the clams had been fresh and had any flavor. Pastas, too, had their deficits, but they were awfully nice to eat. Fettuccine Fedora is powerfully rich and creamy, probably too much for a main dish, but the Cajun spicing and the chunks of seafood are appealing, and the pasta is well prepared. Spinach tortelloni filled with ricotta, prosciutto and spinach -- the same filling and pasta as the fried ravioli -- and sauced with wild mushrooms was good, but not as heady as those wonderful ingredients imply.
I have had dreadful main dishes at Fedora Cafe. Blackened redfish was raw in the middle, coated with acrid spices that tasted of little but mediocre paprika. Rack of lamb was rare but dry and grainy. And spit-roasted duck emerged with its skin soft and fatty, its flavor overwhelmed by a sweet barbecue sauce reminiscent of catsup, accompanied by shiitake mushrooms that had curiously little taste. Why would anybody come back? For a thick, juicy, tender, delectable mesquite-grilled swordfish that was a special one day. And for that marvelous fried polenta (ask for it without the tomato sauce, which eclipses its flavor) or for the outstanding vegetables, saute'ed and seasoned just right. The french fries are a knockout -- thin and deep brown, with that sweetly starchy flavor that comes from mature potatoes. But the french fried onions are a mystery. Once they were so terrible that we left them after sampling the dry, heavy, doughy squares encasing steamed onion. Another day they were irresistible, their batter light and crisp, the onion cooked so its flavor came through, with a zesty sprinkling of Cajun spice. What's the answer? To send them back if they aren't right, since you know this kitchen can do them well.
You should save room for dessert. There is clearly a skilled pastry chef at work here. The chocolate and nut ga teau is light yet dense with two kinds of nuts and chocolate. The flourless chocolate truffle cake is ultrachocolate. Cheesecake isn't the best around, but it is good. And there are profiteroles, double chocolate terrine and homemade ice creams, enhanced by a marvelous bitter fudge sauce.
It is not inevitable that you will eat well at Fedora, but you certainly can. This is food that is fashionable and fun, and much of it is also old-fashioned good.