** (2 stars) Claire's at the Depot
65 S. Third St., Warrenton
Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; for Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. AE, M, V. Nonsmoking. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $9; lunch entrees $9 to $12; dinner entrees $14 to $29. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.
I'm a sucker for train stations. Maybe it's because my grandfather was a railroad engineer, or perhaps it's just nostalgia for a more civilized time and place. But when a colleague returned from a weekend in the country with a card and praise for Claire's at the Depot, I waited less than five minutes to book a table there. ("It's better than the Ashby Inn," the popular hunt country destination, my tipster teased.)
Residents of Warrenton knew the space simply as the Depot, a long-playing, family-run restaurant, before Claire Lamborne took over the site in February. "I've wanted it for years," she told me in a recent telephone conversation. One can understand the attraction. While the interior she inherited clearly had seen better days, the brick facade was a real looker. Lamborne spent $500,000 revamping the inside: new lights, fresh paint, different flooring and redesigned bathrooms.
Lamborne, who owns a local catering business, got a fairly late start in a trade that is physically challenging. "I was 36 years old when I started cooking," recalls the former schoolteacher, who traded her ruler for a chef's knife and graduated from L'Academie de Cuisine in 1981. Since then, she has made frequent trips to the Caribbean, and cooked in or consulted for more than 20 restaurants in Northern Virginia, from Artie's in Fairfax to Bilbo Baggins in Alexandria. For a while, "I was in Charlottesville, too," she says, almost as an afterthought. "How many people open a restaurant when they're 62?"
For her ambitious undertaking, she brought in reinforcement from local chef Sandy Freeman, formerly of the Whistle Stop, to handle the day-to-day cooking. Some of the recipes at Claire's are staples from Lamborne's catering business; others are the result of Lamborne having a general idea (scallops) and Freeman adding a twist (a wasabi crust). For the most part, their collaboration succeeds.
"Claire's Famous She Crab" soup merits the crowing. Thick with its namesake crab, the sherry-laced appetizer balances its expected richness with a bite from both cayenne and hot pepper sauce. Every spoonful delivers a pinprick of pleasure. Continuing the seafood theme are oysters in crunchy coats of cornmeal, served with a spirited dipping sauce, and, better yet, strips of seared, pepper-ignited ahi tuna paired with wonton crackers. The last looks like an idea ripped from the pages of a food magazine ("Impress Your Guests With These Elegant Snacks!") and disappears quickly once it hits the table.
Salads show lots of personality. Proving that there's more than one way to toss a spinach salad, Claire's outfits its version with olives, onions and bites of juicy watermelon. There's more: a pitcher of creamy, cilantro-laced dressing to perk up this party of ingredients. A Caesar salad adopts a Southwestern accent with roasted corn and croutons that are described as chili-flavored but need more fire.
The servers skew young, friendly and efficient. They also dispense worthwhile tips, as in, "Someone should try the swordfish tonight." One of us did, fortunately, and she only reluctantly shared the special -- presented as a skewer with a garden of vegetables and an electric sauce of red onions and vinegar -- with her table mates. The standing menu has plenty of entrees that are easy to like, too. One is sliced flatiron steak, striped with a zippy mustard sauce and teamed with onion-laced black beans and, as refreshing counterpoint, a light slaw of julienned carrot and jicama. Another treat brings together a trio of small but thick and meaty lamb chops with skin-on, "muddled" (read: mashed) red bliss potatoes and a cherry sauce that ricochets from sweet to tart in each drop. Herb-marinated chicken breast sports an unnecessary coat of melted brie and pesto, but the entree also arrives with an appealing orzo that embraces the Mediterranean with artichokes and olives in its mix. Lamborne's time in the tropics inspired a meatless entree that is one of my most pleasant memories of Claire's: grilled vegetables and tofu, everything draped with a not-too-sweet coconut curry and offered with fragrant basmati rice. An intriguing cast of spices -- coriander, ginger, turmeric -- lend their voices to this fine concert.
A few dishes are duds. Bruschetta is big and clumsy: thick-cut tomatoes, mozzarella and ordinary bread. And Claire's is not the place to order crab cakes; the ones here -- small, flat and bland -- would be run out of most Washington seafood restaurants. While salmon is cooked to a customer's liking, the fish suffers from its honey-ginger glaze, which emphasizes sweet over heat.
Think fruit for dessert. Late summer delivered a pie bursting with peaches on one night, blueberries on another. More decadence comes by way of the multi-layered chocolate cake, dark as midnight and dense as it gets.
The restaurant's 84 seats are spread across two dining rooms. The brick-walled "fireplace room," with windows looking onto the street, is named for a hearth that is lighted when the weather turns cold. It's attractive and cozy, ideal for a small reunion of friends and family. The long and narrow "garden room" tugs at the romantic in me, however. As its name suggests, the tables look onto a patio and a patch of grass that includes a fountain; extending from a wall is a half-roof left over from the building's days as an actual depot. Even the small bar off the entrance, occupying space that used to be a ticket counter, is a charming place to sip and sup.
Better than the Ashby Inn? Not quite. But at it's best, Claire's comes close.
Count me onboard.
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For the past few years now, 100 or so Washington restaurants have participated in Restaurant Week, a promotion to celebrate the industry -- and fill dining rooms -- in the traditionally sluggish months of January and August. Based on feedback after the most recent event, in which three-course lunches went for $20.05 and dinners cost $30.05, I applaud those restaurants that used the occasion to show their kitchens' range -- a number (Andale, Dish, IndeBleu, Zola) offered their entire menu for consideration -- rather than a mere two or three choices per course. A few establishments (Ardeo, Corduroy) even extended the bargain an additional week. That said, may I offer some suggestions for the next meal deal? I'd love to see restaurants offer some wine or drink deals to complement the cut-price food. And more than one diner told me about servers who made them feel like second-class citizens when they ordered from the Restaurant Week menu. Those workers need to remember that today's deal-chasers can become tomorrow's regulars if the patrons have enjoyed the whole dining experience.
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