BLEU ROCK INN
-- U.S. Route 211, Washington, Va. 703-987-3190. Open: for dinner Monday, Tuesday, Thursday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 8 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Closed Wednesday. AE, MC, V. Reservations required on weekends. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $5.25 to $7.25, entrees $13.25 to $20.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $45 to $50 per person.
-- 108 S. Royal Ave., Front Royal, Va. 703-635-3496. Open: for dinner Wednesday through Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $4 to $6.75, entrees $13 to $17.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 per person.
PATRICK O'CONNELL MUST BE FEELING flattered these days. As a result of his inspiration at the Inn at Little Washington, hungry explorers can now dine well at two new restaurants near the famous inn. One is a Rappahannock County farmhouse inn, and the other is a restaurant in a Front Royal Victorian mansion. A new generation of country restaurants is in the making.
JUST DOWN THE ROAD FROM THE inn, Bleu Rock imitates O'Connell's tiny tuna and crab cakes, but the biggest draw at this renovated farmhouse is the setting. It would hardly matter what was served on the flagstone terrace overlooking the Blue Ridge mountains, the fish-stocked pond, the horse-stocked fields and the vineyards. Inside are five guest rooms and three small dining rooms.
These are genteel dining rooms with fireplaces and gilt-framed artwork. Bouquets of garden flowers decorate the pink tablecloths. The owners -- the Campagne brothers of La Bergerie in Alexandria -- lend a French sensibility to Bleu Rock. But like the name, the inn's style is hybridized ("All righty, Monsieur," chirped one waitress).
The best meal at Bleu Rock is breakfast, which is unfortunately available only to overnight guests (though there is a Sunday brunch). The remarkable drop biscuits, the local fruit topped with sugared and minted sour cream, the spicy country sausage -- along with the views and the flowered duvets that keep you warm at night -- add up to sufficient reason to plan an overnight stay.
Dinner starts with a bowl of wickedly delicious fried sweet potato and jicama chips. Then come herbed cornmeal madeleines and good yeasty French bread. The wine list includes the inn's own labels; Bleu Rock whites are pleasant, and taste all the better for the opportunity to drink a wine in view of its own vines.
The standouts at this restaurant are among the appetizers. If mussel chowder, creamy and leek scented, is one of the soups offered, it is not to be missed. A special of smoked trout is local and delicate, dressed with squiggles of horseradish cream. Sweetbreads have an appealing crispness and mate well with fresh baby artichokes and hazelnuts in a tart brown butter sauce -- this chef has a penchant for tartness that plays well against his rich dishes.
Less distinctive are a terrine of duck and foie gras -- heavily seasoned and compact -- and tiny, gummy crab cakes. Fettuccine with smoked salmon is straightforward and homey.
Like the appetizers, the best main courses have been the specials, particularly the beef medallions. They are tenderly cooked and topped with shreds of duck confit, wild mushrooms and roasted shallots, an earthy mix. On the standing menu, the various broiled fish are well crusted but tend to be undercooked for some tastes (as does the grilled chicken). They're sparked by tart marinated onions or vegetable salsa, fragrant with red pep- per butter or coriander butter. Pork chops, on the other hand, are surprisingly plain, delicate rather than gutsy. Yet the leg of lamb, another special, is dark and swarthy, reeking of garlic, more like beef than lamb. Some dishes benefit from their own special vegetables -- intense red cabbage with the pork, ratatouille with the lamb; others are served with the same buttery mix of squash, mushrooms and green beans.
Among desserts, tartness again stars, in a powerful lemon tart with a crunchy candy-sweet crust. The chocolate torte is rich and dark but disappointingly light on flavor, the cheesecake is crumbly and heavy, and the apple spice cake is dry and acrid.
Bleu Rock has incomparable natural assets, though it has had management problems and is bringing in a new professional management team. But the weekend bookings suggest that this area is so starved for country charm the public will be patient as the inn finds its way. OLIVER'S SETTLED ITS SERVICE PROB- lems far more quickly and is now so comfortably professional that even large families with children are handled with serenity. Not all the servers are so smooth, but ours was like one of those dignified, gracious waitresses we've encountered in French country inns.
The small dining rooms are decorated simply, in shades of gray. But they are far from somber, with their fanciful Victorian prints and period sconces, and one salmon-pink rose on each table.
The cooking is both sophisticated and countrified, borrowing ideas from the Mediterranean to Asia for the constantly changing menu. And while the dishes sound simple, they almost always deliver more than you expect. The bread basket is a treasure of herbed cheese biscuits, olive-studded or pumpernickel rolls and French bread, the work of a talented baker. The wine list is small and carefully chosen, with good choices in the $20 to $25 range. And the plates are delightfully garnished with sprigs of herbs, julienned greens, small mounds of colorful vegetable salads.
My first surprise was lobster and pork potstickers, meticulous and succulent, cleverly teamed with orange wedges and ginger sauce. The pa~te' is brilliantly seasoned, its foie gras center as tender as butter. Lobster-and-crab cakes also go beyond expectation, creamy and mustard-spiked in a golden crisp, light crumb coating. An unthickened gumbo is eccentric, generous with its ham and oysters. And duck soup is a clear, rich broth with small white beans, tender duck meat and crisp cracklings. Steamed mussels may be predictable, but their lemony noodle accompaniment makes them news. Only a ter- rine of smoked trout and salmon -- so pretty you'd like to preserve it -- has no punch to deliver.
There are other flaws, most notably a heavy, sweet vinaigrette that ruins the handsome green salad. And some main dishes fall short: crumbly and flavorless grilled swordfish, a crab and sausage lasagne that just doesn't work, meltingly soft duck confit overwhelmed by sweet, tangy raspberry sauce. I've been most impressed by the beef -- crusty tenderloin slices with smoky and faintly sweet grilled onions -- and the trout, crisp-skinned and bacon-topped, infused with herb and garlic butter. Even more important, the vegetable accompaniments have been varied and luscious.
Remember those superb cheese biscuits to start? The pastry chef also makes a dazzling apple cheesecake, soft and tangy, almost a custard. And the cre`me bru~le'e is a classic. From mousse cakes to fruit tarts, the desserts are charmers. There are also house-made ice creams and sorbets, including a very tart lime that could supplant Heath Bar Crunch in my heart.
Oliver's is only an hour from downtown Washington via Route 66, and it seems closer with each visit.