American patriotism has come to culinary Washington. We have the Cajun rage, nouvelle American, California classical, early traditional, and we are even beginning to see the Southwest edging eastward.
It is in hotel restaurants that this patriotism is most grandly celebrated -- and sadly misinterpreted. These restaurants are trying; the question is, what they are trying to do?
Sheraton Washington Hotel, 2660 Woodley Rd. 328-2000. Open seven days a week, 6 to 11 p.m. (bar open 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.). Reservations suggested. AE, MC, V, DC, Choice. Parking available. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers $2.95 to $7.95, entrees $11.50 to $26.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 a person.
ONE THING THAT HOTELS seem to do better than free-standing restaurants is to build a beautiful dining room. Americus stretches luxuriously across the Sheraton Washington with picture windows overlooking the lobby and more private spaces to the rear. Its design is sleekly modern yet richly traditional; its tables are gleaming rosewood.
At the entrance, Americus has a "grazing" bar, where, with your drinks, you can have raw bar seafoods or steamed clams, mussels or crawfish, burgers, soups and salads. In the dining room proper, the menu bows to tradition -- with onion soup, steak and roast beef (albeit smoked) -- and also pays homage to the kiwi gods. There is more seafood than meat on the menu by far, and Louisiana is well represented.
I want to give Americus credit right off for one major breakthrough: There is not a zucchini in sight. In fact, the vegetables are the best of this kitchen's work. Bright, fresh asparagus are cooked and seasoned impeccably, and tossed with equally agreeable carrots. And stuffed potatoes are actually potato gratin -- sliced and layered with cheese, moistened with milk and restuffed in their skins. Those vegetables, along with the very good hush puppies -- spiked with ham -- do Americus proud.
Unfortunately you can't stop there. You are likely to sully the impression with an appetizer, such as an oyster sampler of celery-laden oyster rockefeller, celery-laden oyster bienville and celery-laden oyster bayou teche (well, maybe they didn't all have celery, but they all tasted like celery). Coconut-battered shrimp, however, is a good job, though creole marmalade needs an edge to balance its sweetness.
It is the main dishes that hold out little hope. Fish are nicely cooked, but a farm-raised salmon starts with elusive flavor and loses whatever it has in a concoction such as kiwi barbecue sauce. It just doesn't work; it tastes like a fish sundae. And the shellfish I tried were just shameful: scallops devoid of taste, gummy and slippery on the tongue; oysters that tasted as if they were too long out of their shell; crab cakes overwhelmed with green pepper and pimento and with crab meat that had more the texture of Alaskan crab than Maryland. A fried seafood platter may have been fresh and made in that kitchen, but it looked and tasted like greasy, mushy factory-breaded frozen seafood.
Desserts are ambitious, the choices ranging from traditional boston cream pie to modern three-chocolate mousse, and the ice creams and sherbets are house-made, well favored but icy in texture when I tried them.
All this is to the accompaniment of piano music -- and to the dance of waiters who try to snatch your plate every time you stop chewing. This awkward, uninformed service and the showy but tasteless preparations are what you expect from a restaurant that serves jug wines -- not one with a wine list such as Americus', luxuriant with the great names of California. And there are even some good values once you get past the star-studded first few pages. But you are not likely to go to Americus just for its elegant vegetables and a celebrated wine.
Vista International Hotel, 1400 M St. NW. 429-1700 Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, V, DC, CB, MC. Reservations suggested. No separate smoking section. Prices: at lunch appetizers average $5.50, entrees average $14. Fixed price lunch $14.50. At dinner appetizers average $6.25, entrees $19.50 to $25. Fixed price dinner $29 to $34.50.
THE SERVICE is far more suave at the Vista's American Harvest, and the rooms are more traditional, furnished more like a Georgetown dining room than a hotel space.
And the menu is more complex, with some combinations even sillier, if possible, than Americus' kiwi barbecue sauce. What would our forefathers have said about chicken salad on alfalfa sprouts with thick, sweet raspberry sauce?
American Harvest, if measured against free-standing restaurants in its price range, falls behind. But it does have its ups. I have found a delicious veal with shiitakes, for instance, the veal medallions thick enough that the meat was well browned but faintly pink and juicy. The large, fleshy shiitakes were saute'ed and moistened with a bit of cream sauce. This was good cooking of fresh American ingredients, not a misguided show of ingenuity. Liver could have used a little less ingenuity. The thick slabs were handsome with grill marks and cooked precisely as ordered, though the flavor had a bitter edge. They were prettily topped with avocado that added little taste, and the sauce looked like barbecue sauce but tasted wan and undistinguished.
Not all the ingenuity is misguided. Red snapper with jalapen o hollandaise was enhanced by the faint pepperiness in the airy hollandaise, and smoked shrimp as a cold platter had distinctly more flavor than the usual tasteless boiled shrimp. I also liked the three homemade smoked sausages as an appetizer -- duck, veal and shrimp -- served with an invigorating radish mayonnaise.
The kitchen does well with vegetables. Broccoli was infused with just enough butter and tossed with various seeds and nuts. Rice, however, had the saline overseasoned taste reminiscent of packaged mixes. And soups were pallid, as if a good fresh base had been diluted to stretch it further.
The Vista has an accomplished pastry chef who turns out beautiful, precise looking and intricate tortes. An apple pie with a delicious tart and cinnamon-rich filling, though, had a caky rather than flaky crust. And white chocolate ice cream has varied, once silken and once grainy. Sweet buttery little cookies end the meal on your way out the door.
This is a restaurant with plenty of polish and sophisticated ideas. It overreaches, and the cooking sometimes lacks the personality one would expect from a smaller operation. If one compares it with hotel restaurants of recent decades, though, America has much to celebrate.