-- 100 King St., Alexandria. 703-739-0555. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: three-course fixed-price lunch $21; five-course fixed-price dinner $38 Sunday through Thursday, $44 Friday and Saturday. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $65 to $80 per person.
GAS LIGHT IS A FRIDAY NIGHT fantasy for Washington workaholics. Just imagine the end of a high-stress work week when you want to go out and celebrate but don't have the energy to exert yourself a whit. You wish everything could be done for you. No effort. No decisions.
That's Gas Light. You don't need to drive, or if you drive you don't need to park your car. And you barely need to choose what you want to eat or drink.
If there are four or more of you, and you live within 15 miles of the restaurant, Gas Light will send a limousine to your door and chauffeur you home after dinner. You are delivered to a gas-lit, silk-wallpapered lap of luxury, where the rugs are Orientals, the window glass is leaded, and even iced tea is served in cut-crystal tumblers. Most of the waiters have British accents, and the busboys have a snappy professional style. This brand-new restaurant may call itself "contemporary American," but it is the soul of tradition.
Everything is designed to impress, though sometimes it goes too far. The massive high-back chairs are too straight for comfort and too high for short people. And the restaurant gets a little carried away when it describes itself as allowing "each patron an affair with fine dining."
You don't even need to exert yourself to read a menu. There is none, really. So, after making decisions all week, you sit back and pretty much leave things up to the kitchen. You have no choices to make for the first two courses, and main dishes offer only four options. Even the wines can be chosen for you if you opt for the $25 flight of four glasses of wine to accompany your dinner. While that may seem expensive for four glasses of unexciting wine, it saves you from perusing the wine list, which doesn't even reveal the vintages of its wines, some of which reach into the hundreds of dollars. Furthermore, wines by the glass go from $7 to $14 each. There are certainly some good wines and even some acceptable prices on this very expensive list, but you have to dig for them. And you're here to relax.
Dinner starts with a small hors d'oeuvre surprise, in our case a tiny crab cake with a dab of caviar and a vague pink sauce. That was followed by a duck salad so luscious that I was glad I didn't have to share a bite. Perfectly tender and juicy duck slices with a rim of crisp skin were arranged on lovely wild greens with a few sliced blackberries and a blackberry vinaigrette that escaped being cloying.
The second course wasn't so flawless. Lightly grilled scallops, moist and supple, were teamed with slightly tough shrimp on a bed of white beans with ham, a peasant dish turned elegant but not quite successfully -- Cinderella with plastic slippers. For a guest who didn't eat shellfish the chef sent out an appetizer portion of a main dish we hadn't ordered, rockfish in a lovely winy sauce on green bean puree. It made us wish someone had ordered the full portion.
You don't have to choose your bread, or even butter it. You are served the now-fashionable sliced brioche, so light and buttery that you wouldn't think of adding more butter.
This is food for the eye, the colors so beautifully coordinated that you might suppose ingredients had first been chosen for hue. Sauces are drizzled into feathers and wisps and painted deserts. Clearly this is a restaurant that keeps up with trends: salad with berries, elegant bean dishes, brioche. Main dishes reinforce the impression: Tenderloin of beef is topped with beet-filled ravioli, veal is blanketed with fresh wild mushrooms, fish is rubbed with cracked pepper and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. All are on a bed of something -- spinach, wild greens, roasted peppers, green bean puree.
Main dish choices were evenhanded: two meat, two fish. The beef was of regal quality, cooked to a crusty finish. Veal was pale as ivory and cut thickly. Fish was fresh and juicy. And these excellent ingredients were flawlessly cooked, though the fish was a shade dry. But you shouldn't expect less from a chef who only has seven different dishes to prepare each evening. Yet except for occasional inspirations, this is food more fashionable than magical.
One of those inspirations is the beet ravioli. While it is becoming a cliche in Washington's restaurants, here it is so vibrantly seasoned that it could turn this trend into a classic. It's a bold idea, beet ravioli on steak, but the spice and tang of the beet puree make it work.
The purees and vegetable accompaniments are also more lively than most. But sauces tend to be too reduced, a little sticky. And vinaigrettes show too heavy a hand with the vinegar.
Desserts included one show-stopper, an apple napoleon of paper-thin phyllo sandwiching tangy apple puree. The construction was topped with tart apple sorbet, surrounded by a moat of caramel sauce piped with sprays of leaves. The trendiest dessert was a trio of custards, one chocolate, one vanilla and the third hazelnut, but two were rubbery. Chocolate mint torte was simply dry and bitter. But then there was the grand finale, coffee served from silver pots and a plate of tiny pastry bagatelles.
Lunch -- three courses -- was not nearly as glamorous as dinner. We were greeted with an hors d'oeuvre of liver mousse and blueberries on toast points, followed by a tomato and shrimp bisque that looked dazzling with its piped lines of cream, dots of green herbed oil and topknot of fried leek strands. But while the soup was subtle and compelling, the large grilled shrimp were chewy and reeking of iodine. Main dishes offered a choice of grilled salmon on a plateful of salad, chicken breast with squash puree and fried sweet potatoes, or black pepper fettuccine with strips of veal and shiitake mushrooms in cream. For a fixed price of $21 one might expect a more glamorous entree. And while each main dish had its attractions, none added up to anything memorable. Desserts, as at dinner, left mixed impressions. Chocolate terrine was more candy than dessert, and cre`me bru~le'e started out all right but curdled under its sugar glaze.
Gas Light is a big-ticket show, and while the cooking is more than competent, it doesn't have the brilliance of a master. Nitpickers will find plenty to satisfy their search for flaws, particularly considering the limited scope of choices. But when the experience is taken as a whole, the food, the service and the glamorous details add up to gracious dining, a totally chauffeur-driven evening.