Rail Stop

6478 Main St. (at Route 245), The Plains


Open: for lunch Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 8:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted at dinner only. Separate smoking area. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $5, entrees $6.50 to $12.50; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $9.75, entrees $14.25 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.

It sounds like a recipe for a restaurant in the city: Exposed kitchen. Lobster salad and pasta from scratch. Occasional dinners built around special wines. A celebrity in the dining room.

The Rail Stop offers all that and more. Yet its home is a bucolic Virginia burg, the sort of farmhand-meets-blueblood place where bait is sold at the local gas station -- but so is espresso. An hour's drive from downtown Washington, the Rail Stop feels a world away, with its small porch out front and a miniature train inside that, if you ask your server to hit a switch, will chug around the ceiling of the front dining room. (Let me amend that. The last time I asked, the waitress was game, but the train was not: Its run around the room ended halfway, in the kitchen, where no one looked surprised to see it come to a stop.)

Time your visit right and you might even run into actor Robert Duvall, a resident of The Plains and one-time co-owner of the Rail Stop. Though he sold his interest in the business 21/2 years ago to chef Tom Kee, Duvall continues to take his meals here, a waitress told me -- as often as five times a week when he's not off playing another character.

There's more than loyalty to keep him coming back. Granted, the Rail Stop is one of very few sources of food out in these hills. But its menu is a small treat, as up-to-date as anything you might expect in the nation's capital. Sure, at lunch you can find a bowl of chili, thick with shredded beef and heaped with red onion and grated cheese. But the daytime menu also includes one sandwich made with grilled shrimp, basil oil and sun-dried tomatoes, and another with lamb, red peppers and goat cheese, both satisfying.

Evenings tend to show the Rail Stop to more delicious advantage, with a more ambitious list of dishes. A diner can start off with a pleasing assortment of cheeses -- perhaps a couple of bites each of manchego, brie and Roquefort -- presented with tiny olives, almonds and quince paste. As an appetizer, it is small enough not to fill you up, and wakes up your palate as you go from salty nut to sweet fruit to rich cheese. Rosti is sheer comfort food: a golden wedge of shredded potatoes, crunchy outside and soft in the center, framed in sauteed mushrooms and capped with herb-laced goat cheese butter that slowly melts into the rest. And Kee detours to Asia with a luscious duck roll sweetened with hoisin and plum sauces and partnered with a red cabbage slaw that glistens with sesame oil.

If there's a weak spot here, it's in the seasoning; several plates are too restrained. The lobster salad, arranged with feathery mizuna, crushed fingerling potatoes and shaved fennel, is supposedly dressed with lemon vinaigrette, but the citrus is elusive and the composition begs for a sprinkle of salt to bring it together. An entree of braised rabbit and quail, bedded on hearty, sage-scented white beans that are better suited to winter than to spring, is similarly subdued (although I do like the coarse duck sausage that accompanies it). The side dishes offered at lunch, potato salad and cole slaw among them, also could use more liberal spicing.

More frequently, Kee and company strike just the right balance. Pleasantly bitter broccoli rabe and mashed sweet potatoes bolster a thick marinated pork chop, ringed with a clear apple cider sauce zipped up with cloves and star anise. A salmon fillet is roasted on a small cedar plank and slathered with a creamy horseradish sauce that brings out the personality of that familiar fish; soft cabbage and fluffy basmati rice add to its appeal. And from a chalkboard scribbled with a few daily specials, there might be seared rockfish, gently assertive with capers and a sauce of butter and sun-dried tomatoes.

Aim for a seat in the front room. It is small and cozy, ending with a tiny counter that gives anyone lucky enough to grab one of its four stools an entertaining cooking show. Kee and a sous-chef deftly work around each other in the confines of the small kitchen, and they seem to be the only ones preparing orders for as many as 65 customers at a time. (Maybe that's why they don't chat much with their audience.) The back dining room, with its clusters of dried flowers and broad captain's chairs, is bigger but lacks the spirit of the foyer. And frankly, it looks like a bit of an afterthought. The cafeteria-issue utensils and vinyl table covers are at odds with the expensive paintings and grandly framed mirror.

"Did you save room for dessert?" a personable waitress asks one night. "They're all homemade." The selection usually includes a fine creme brulee and a dense chocolate torte draped in vanilla and fruit sauces. There might also be a not-too-sweet walnut and caramel torte with lashings of chocolate sauce. Yet the best ending is the homiest: lemon pound cake garnished with diced apricots and real whipped cream. Real simple -- and real good.

Arriving customers are announced by a gentle creak of the porch door. Sometimes, the group walking in is a family straight out of the pages of Town & Country. Other times, it's two seniors looking for a sandwich and a cup of coffee while they pore over a map. Regardless, they all get a pleasant welcome and a nice meal. If they're lucky, they might also catch a train that moves and a nod from Robert Duvall.

Ask Tom

"We have always enjoyed Le Rivage," began a query from Kay Youngflesh of Alexandria. "The food was fine and the view was pretty, especially at sunset." Like more than a few readers, she was surprised to see an "out of business" sign posted at the restaurant, which overlooked the Potomac in Southwest. It turns out that the Capital Yacht Club, which owned the building, opted not to renew the French restaurant's lease. "It's been heartbreaking for me," says Didier Crespi, who opened the room with a view almost 19 years ago. "We will try to relocate when we can," he says, adding that he hopes to find a new home in either Washington or Northern Virginia, where he lives. Stay tuned.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

To chat with Tom Sietsema online, click on Live Online at www.washingtonpost.com, Wednesdays at 11 a.m.