IT'S JUST ABOUT the last of the Old Guard, this classical French restaurant. The new ones are doing beet ravioli; The Jockey Club still has pommes souffle's. Its menu lists vichyssoise and caesar salad, dover sole meunie re and tournedo rossini. And while you rarely see anything ablaze in a Washington dining room anymore, at The Jockey Club they are still flaming steak diane.
There was a time when you could find these substantial, meaty dishes in dozens of places. But now trends have changed and so, when the taste for tradition arises, we have few choices -- and even fewer competent choices. Which gets us to the question of price: A caesar salad for two at $10 is more attractive when it is a lost art than when it is commonplace; a proper tournedo rossini -- with an excellent thick and crusty piece of fillet, honorable foie gras and a glossy, limpid, rich and faintly sweet perigordine sauce -- is worth contemplating at $23.50 (even if the truffles taste faint and canned), only when it is possibly the best or one of very few in town.
But my renewed respect for The Jockey Club is not because its style has become a collector's item, but rather because it has brought in a new chef to execute these old standbys with fresh vigor. At first I thought this French-oriented Japanese chef might bring a new amalgam to Washington's repertoire of cuisines. Instead, he has stuck to the original style but refined it and developed a consistency I did not find in the kitchen before.
I used to favor The Jockey Club alone for its crab cakes; they cost about twice as much as anywhere else in town, but they were model crab cakes. Nowadays their price hasn't changed, but they have. The impeccable snowy lump crab is too heavy with breading and soggy with excess butter. So now I would suggest anything but the crab cakes.
Dinner is likely to start with something well bought rather than well prepared, as the appetizer list leans heavily on belon oysters, beluga caviar, smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail. They are not much gussied up -- the smoked salmon is merely sliced very thin and served with capers, onions, a lemon half and properly trimmed toast. It is not perfect salmon but it is good, if you don't mind paying $12.75 for it.
To generalize further, appetizers are not this kitchen's strength, though their prices are very hefty. Two sturdily excellent appetizers are oysters rockefeller -- the thick green topping tangy and grassy, the oysters without fault -- and Baked Crab Jockey Club, a creamy and lightly curried variation of crab imperial, high quality except for the bits of shell that hadn't been removed. There are a couple of daily specials, one day's being mussels that were overcooked but tastily dressed with garlic-anchovy-parsley butter. Soups are a weak point: Crab gumbo was a pallid clear green broth thick with celery and plenty of crab but not much zest. Clam chowder was better, decently creamy and lightly herbed, but the ground clams were insufficient, the whole mixture pedestrian. A first course I'd like to see again among the daily specials was a salad gourmand, a lovely mix of greens and perfect lobster, fresh foie gras and high-quality caviar, with a dressing that was light enough not to interfere with these luxurious flavors. At $12 it was a far better value than the equivalently priced smoked salmon or crab appetizers.
Main dishes show an attention to quality that substitutes for the dazzle of more inventive kitchens. The veal is cut on the thick side so that it can be browned to a crustiness without drying out. With a light basil-scented sauce as it was served one day, it was nothing gimmicky, just good food. Pigeon, another special, was utterly delicious, the meat rare and buttery and tender, the sauce of little more than pan juices, the accompaniments complementary -- wild rice and a nice toss of delicious vegetables. Rack of lamb, that simple favorite, is done in classic style, the perfectly trimmed thick-cut chops crisscrossed on the plate with a light, clear, unthickened and delicate mustard sauce. Liver, similarly, was cooked simply and just right, with a crusty edge, a bit of light, clear sauce and a few peeled grapes. On the showier side, sea bass baked in a crust was an exceptional job, the crust crisp and buttery, rolled thin enough so it wasn't a doughy dish, with only the merest uncooked edge to it. The fish was perfect -- juicy, fresh tasting -- and there was a layer of spinach for color and taste contrast, plus a sauce choron with just the right tinge of tomato to the be'arnaise.
Vegetables are also nicely prepared classics, the pommes souffle's thin, crisp and greaseless, just a shell of potato enclosing air. Creamed spinach is fine, and there might be baby carrots with grown-up asparagus, the vegetables cooked through but not too softened, the butteriness a gloss rather than a greasiness.
You are encouraged at The Jockey Club to order souffle's for dessert when you order your dinner. And they are worth considering, for they are high and airy, and the raspberry has a lovely, intense fruit flavor. Ours were pale rather than crusty, though, and collapsed to nearly nothing on the plate. The Jockey Club also does those showoff tableside desserts such as crepes suzettes, and the standard mousse and cheesecake, a rather dense version.
The wine list, too, is solid, with some extravagant rare wines and some very good modest wines, including a really worthwhile wine by the glass.
Everything meshes at The Jockey Club. The service is experienced, correct and unintrusive. The dining room is hearty and luxurious, with leather banquettes in red, wood that is dark and rough rather than polished and tablecloths that are red and white plaid. The space is carved into intimate groupings of tables where couples sit side by side and face serious sculpture and paintings rather than each other.
The Jockey Club is a good steady restaurant, and there are people willing to pay considerably for such details. Many of them know each other and are known by the restaurant. It is a clubby place, not with a membership fee but with prices that serve the same purpose. At last, though, I can understand why people would want to belong.