LAFAYETTE -- HAY-ADAMS HOTEL, 800 16TH ST. NW. 202-638-2570. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner daily 6 to 10 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. All major credit cards. Res-ervations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $6.50 to $12.75, entrees $14.50 to $23.50; dinner appetizers $7 to $10, entrees $17 to $29. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $50 to $70 per person.
Those birthday dinners. Those champagne seductions. Those gatherings of tourists, all thrilled to dine across the park from the White House. What a scene Lafayette has set, modeled after the interior of an 18th-century English country house, the dining room 90 feet long, with draperies that look heavy enough to crush you, full-grown potted trees and crystal chandeliers sufficient for a palace. Everything is thick and soft, and the tables are spaced widely enough that you'd have no qualms about talking state secrets over dinner.
No Muzak here; the background music is provided by a grand piano. And while only one rose is on each table, it's a two-toned beauty. The glassware is so thin it is almost no barrier between your lips and the wine. Surely Bill and Hillary are dining in no greater splendor tonight.
The Hay-Adams Hotel has been refurbishing, which means its dining room has new china and linens and paintings on the walls. It also has a new menu, a new concept. There's the rub. It's called "Meritage Cuisine," which is a pompous name for fusion cooking. Thus, in this setting tailored for the classics, you're offered veal chop with "lemon pickle insertions," tandoori risotto and black bean sauce. All on one plate. Lamb chops are dipped in Japanese tempura batter and fried, then set afloat on Italian-style tomato sauce with Moroccan spices. The Japanese, the Italians, the Moroccans would all be mystified.
What in the world is a "shelf of roasted duck breast and shrimp"? It's a vulgarity. A hunk of rare meat looks as if it had been assaulted by a butterflied shrimp that remains stuck through the middle. These two intertwined ingredients have nothing to say to each other, and even for diners they are conversation-stoppers. Here's an example of good ingredients being manipulated to perform unnatural acts.
That veal chop is equally alarming, with its mound of risotto tinted neon red and waving a sail of triangular cracker. It looks like nothing found in nature. An appetizer called Chilled Tempura Gulf Shrimp Tower should ring warning bells, and not just because chilled tempura is a silly idea. Teaming it with chayote puree makes it an international joke. Fortunately, it's wreathed by perfectly good smoked salmon. I couldn't muster the courage to order a vegetarian entree called Grilled Vegetable Dome.
I'm relieved to report, though, that among these culinary toys, these sailing ships and pyramids and towers, I've found some delicious bites. An entree of smoked sea scallops was magnificent, sweetly fresh shellfish just faintly smoky and caramelized, though its sauce of "cucumber milk" was watery, and its wasabi ravioli little more than thuds of dough. A Norwegian Salmon Spiral offered one luscious bite of moist fish and porcini duxelles, and its carved vegetables were perfect, but every subsequent bite was dry.
Some of the appetizers would have been fine if the chef had been called away in mid-preparation. A mushroom risotto topped with rich shredded duck didn't benefit from its sweet orange and sage sauce, and a duet of tartares -- which looked gorgeous -- would have fared better as a solo. In this raw surf and turf, the bison tartare was sharp and flavorful, but the white tuna tasted too shy.
The menu lists more traditional dishes -- peppered steak, grilled bison, swordfish with mustard sauce, and that grand-hotel specialty, Dover sole. Thank goodness, not much is done to embarrass the sole. The fish is firm and glistening, and the waiters make much fanfare of boning it tableside. A dusting of chopped macadamia nuts proves unintrusive, and the butter sauce is restrained. The carrots, asparagus and green beans are suitable, if undercooked. But the chef can't hold back; a pile of gnocchi, heavy and gummy, its sauce with an acrid finish, is that one accessory too many.
At least with the Dover sole, you can nudge the gnocchi aside and appreciate the rest. No such luck with the Caesar salad. Prepared at your table by a waiter with years of experience, it should be a rare treat. The greens are properly torn and dried. He starts by mashing the garlic with a fork into the wooden bowl, just as he should.
"Anchovies?" he asks. They're those pickled Italian alici, lighter than the usual cured anchovies, but just a variation, not a disruption. "Egg?" he ventures, expecting us to refuse. We accept. A real Caesar salad needs that egg. He dips into dish after dish, stirring the dressing in the bowl. He adds lemon and oil and Parmesan and mustard (not de rigueur, but oh well).
And then vinegar. Oops. The young, modern chef, unbeholden to tradition, has decreed the addition of vinegar. It doesn't work. What's worse, it's balsamic vinegar. The Caesar in question was American, not Roman.
The good news is that you're left with plenty of room for dessert. And once you set aside the pear tomatoes scattered around the risotto pudding, the last course is smooth sailing. This updated rice pudding is very sweet, but it's also creamy and outrageously rich. Likewise, a warm plum gratin is an airy, buttery, eggy sponge with wedges of tart fruit to balance its sugar. Cheesecake here is an intricate little construction of cream cheese, cunningly carved pear and rum-currant ice cream; it's delicious as well as stylish. And chocolate banana delice is a lush miniature bombe amelt with fruit puree and dark mousse.
The wine list is less adventurous than the menu; it's a familiar roster with a strong allegiance to California. While at first glance it's dismayingly heavy with three-digit bottles, you can find some worthy ones in the $30 range. Of course, there are plenty of champagnes for splurging.
There's also caviar with blini to add tradition to a celebration. But clearly this is the Hay-Adams trying to enter a new era. When I approached the entrance to this grand Italian Renaissance hotel one evening, I had to squeeze my way through a crowd under the porte-cochere to reach the door. It wasn't a gathering of silver-haired movers and shakers as I expected, but twenty- and thirtysomethings swigging from bottles of beer.
Once you put balsamic in the Caesar, nothing's sacred.
Chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg has made a name not only for herself but also for the Morrison-Clark Inn, where she's produced slightly homespun but elegant cooking for most of the past nine years. Now, though, she's resigned from that kitchen, with plans to vacation until the end of the year, then look for a new place.
Martin Saylor, once the chef at the British Embassy and at the Hay-Adams, will soon be cooking at another historic locale, the old Garfinckel's building at 14th and F streets NW. He'll be chef at the new Butterfield 9, opening there in December at the earliest. -- P.C.R.