** (2 stars) Apartment 2G
206 South Royal Ave.
(at Route 340), Front Royal
Open: for dinner Wednesday through Saturday 6:30 to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. AE, MC, V. Reservations required. No smoking. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking lot. Prices: mid-week tapas $4.75 to $9.50 each; weekend fixed-price, four-course diner $45 per person. Full weekend dinner with wine, tax and tip about $75 per person.
Restaurant pet peeves? I can count plenty of them: Being asked if I want pepper before I've tasted my food. Having to endure advertisements when I'm put on hold while making a reservation. Waiters who don't tell the truth. ("Everything's good!" some of them tell diners who ask for what a chef does best.)
Another nit is finding a TV in a dining room. Restaurateurs claim they turn on the TV to stay competitive, but I doubt it's as necessary as they say -- unless, of course, the nation is under siege or a new episode of "The Simpsons" is on. Really, isn't it a luxury to be spared from talking heads and news crawls for an hour or two, especially when you're eating?
So you'd imagine my initial reaction to Apartment 2G, whose four small dining rooms each display a TV, would be to turn around and walk out. Instead, I found myself transfixed. It's not often that you have the chance to watch your dinner prepared as it is here, where two photogenic cooks -- husband and wife David and Stacey Gedney -- beam (and get beamed) from a slip of a kitchen in the rear of the building to a small screen near you. Far from being a distraction, the silent televised performance is a little bonus, much like the amuse-bouche that precedes a weekend dinner. "Our own reality TV," joked a server.
First, some history. When it opened above a food shop called J's Gourmet two years ago, Apartment 2G, carved from former living quarters, was designed to host cooking classes, an idea that never caught on.
Theme dinners, in which the Gedneys and other chefs prepared meals celebrating Cajun, Tuscan and other cooking styles, didn't garner much of an audience, either. The couple eventually settled on a game plan that seems to work: a budget-friendly menu of tapas to draw the locals on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and a more elaborate, four-course dinner to lure tourists and others on Fridays and Saturdays.
The mid-week collection of Spanish-inspired small plates relies on quality in-gredients and simple arrangements. A saucer-size crab cake is almost all seafood, crisped on its surface and perched on a slaw of finely sliced fennel, red onion and sweet bell peppers. Chicken croquettes are full of flavor, rich with cream, garlic and fresh herbs. Shards of nutty manchego cheese share a plate with matchsticks of what looks like ham but turns out to be quince paste. Chorizo draped with heat-softened onions, on the other hand, is surprisingly tame, and the cooks seem infatuated with mayonnaise, which they use, in one form or another, with abandon. But there's more to admire than admonish. Pork, for example, sends a hush over the table. Thick slices of meat are cooked to a pale pink; moist and succulent, they remind me that some pork still has savor, while the chunky tomato-caper sauce that decorates the protein adds a tangy punch. If you're a meat eater, and pork is offered, don't miss it.
Reached by a narrow flight of stairs, Apartment 2G feels like the residence it once was. The ceilings hang low, the floors creak beneath your feet and the restroom retains its bathtub. But the close quarters -- 40 seats scattered among the dining areas -- are more intimate than confining, thanks to a restful color scheme and a musical backdrop that runs to Billie Holiday and Ol' Blue Eyes. While I'm most drawn to the rooms overlooking the street, with their broad tables and big windows, each space has its charm. The setup means there's room for no more than two servers; in a pinch, one of the Gedneys might leave the kitchen to help deliver an order.
Now and then, the cooks also get company: The menu invites diners to "come hang out in the kitchen," if they wish, and some take the couple up on the offer. Most guests pose food questions or ask about appliances, but a few have sought out their 15 seconds of fame, like the woman who stood next to David Gedney one night and flashed her dining companions, who caught her impromptu show a room away on their TV.
The Gedneys met a dozen years ago at the Inn at Little Washington, where he worked the saute station and she served as morning supervisor for the famous country inn. He eventually moved on to the Four Seasons Hotel and then to Restaurant Nora in Washington. She left the inn to work at Sutton Place Gourmet in Bethesda. The couple were reunited professionally when they took over the kitchen of the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va., which they left in 2001 to help open the Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn. A year later, they married.
I detect bits and pieces of all that experience in the chefs' full dinners on Fridays and Saturdays. Which is to say the arrangements are simple, the food reminds you what season you're in and the flavors tend to be focused. Thus a recent dinner commenced with a light snack from the kitchen -- a single shrimp garnished with bright minced mango and a drizzle of remoulade -- and continued with feathery fettuccine tossed with prosciutto, sweet cantaloupe and a delicate wine sauce. The salad that followed partnered local organic greens with a not-too-sweet strawberry vinaigrette and warm cheese puffs.
There are usually only two entree choices, typically meat and fish. Merely decent, a beef filet was bested by its sidekicks. They included a brassy tomato, onion and caper sauce, and a puddle of creamy polenta to serve as a base for the meat. There were no quibbles with the other main course that night, seared scallops on a pale green coulis of sweet peas. The scallops were big and sweet, and set off with wedges of grilled portobellos for a tasty sort of surf and turf. As for desserts, the ones I felt compelled to finish were a moist and fine-crumbed Mexican chocolate cake and a Pavlova, a soft-crisp round of meringue filled with fresh whipped cream and strewn with summery berries.
This is not food that will take your breath away. But, in combination with the warm service and unusual venue, it's food that will make you happy. Think of an evening at Apartment 2G as having dinner in the home of friends who are solid cooks -- friends who also happen to keep the camera rolling while they're entertaining you.
Why do so many restaurants serve ice-cold butter with their bread? wonders Allen Moore. Especially when the bread is sliced thin, the Springfield reader points out in an e-mail, "the butter only succeeds in tearing the bread to pieces." Fair point. I would add that serving butter cold also mutes its flavor. Moore shares a trick he uses when he encounters cold butter with warm bread: For easier spreading, "take a bit [of the butter] and put a piece of the warm bread on top of it." He acknowledges his complaint is "far from a devastating problem," and says that it "won't prevent me from patronizing those places." Like a friendly reception and a good cup of coffee, however, soft butter is one of those details that restaurants can use to show they care.
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