What a seemingly perfect combination: A restored market building and a variety of eating establishments. Yet, the attention to architectural detail used to create a 1980s restaurant center, in a 19th-century building seems somehow lost in the shuffle of mediocre food.
This Civil War era building, rebuilt and modernized, opened to the public last summer. The management has been careful to avoid duplication. Except for sodas, coffee and a few desserts, each of the establishments has a definite individual character.
Each vendor has the right to establish his or her own hours, which means your favorite food taste may not be available at the time you visit. As a matter of fact, on a recent Thursday evening almost half the food establishments were closed by 7 p.m.
This flexibility severely limits Market House's potential as an all-round eating establishment. Also, much of the markets' charm is lost with the large number of closed merchants.
What went wrong? For one thing, the prices are high. Six small cookies are a dollar and a scoop of ice cream is just pennies away. What one is left with is expensive fast food, for little qualifies as outstanding cooking although there are some booths making strong attempts.
We tried samples from as many of the eight real restaurants as was possible.
By far the most successful dinner was from the Tempura House (333-6661), which offered a platter of all their delicacies with a small drink for $3.75. The platter included a healthy scoop of rice accompanying tempura vegetables -- ucchini, broccoli and eggplant -- cut, batter-dipped and fried. A piece of chicken breast and a thin slice of beef are on skewers. There is also a piece of tempura shrimp.
Actually, everything comes off quite well considering the size of the booth where the help barely has room to turn and fry.
Across the way, in a similar sized booth, is The Peking Duck (965-3166) where complete platters are available or items may be purchased a la carte. The wontons were not available, but wonton soup and egg rolls were. The soup was right from a jar of chicken soup mix that has not been properly diluted to make a proportionate soup. The egg roll was well-filled but suffered from having been prepared too far in advance of purchase.
Another first-rate venture is by Lumps Que (965-1661). At their other locations, they prepare slabs of ribs by putting the meat into hooded smoke pits. The Market House store puts your order into a sealed container and puts it into the radar oven for a minute. Although the process sounds unexciting, the finished product suffers little and a large portion of sliced ribs with a mild sauce costs $4.16.
Thai food is available at The Green Onion (333-3275), but the one item we sampled, chicken stuffed with crab meat, suffered from having been reheated. All the seasoning was lost and what one was left with was a soggy piece of chicken with a faint crab taste.
On other visits, Shatzkin's has been a stop for aknish or an expensive corned beef sandwich ($3.35). Yet, if you miss the Big Apple so badly, you might just relish any item from this Corney Island stop.
For deserts, the children had no difficulty making an ice cream selection from Innsbruck Strudel and Ice Cream Company (298-9188). The ice cream is Bassett's of Philadelphia, a brand with a loyal local following. We shared a small piece of cherry-filled strudel that had been sitting under the hot lights for quite some time.
Our real dessert was a zeppoli, Italian light bread dough fried in vegetable oil until it pops with air. We ordered it topped with cinnamon sugar ($1.25) and felt that it was not as tasty as the small piece we sampled earlier in the evening. With three people waiting for zeppolis, the young man was pulling them out of the vat a little too early.
The surroundings are lovely with music faintly playing and a few people milling about and tasting items from the vendors. It is time for the Market House operation to be restructured so that the food matches the surroundings.
Hours: Most booths are open 10 a.m. but individual openings and closings vary.
Atmosphere: A modernized 19th-century market.
Price range: Prices vary among individual establishments.
Credit cards: None.
Special features: Accessible to wheelchairs. Elevator to second floor where majority of tables are located. Everything easily prepared for carryout service. Typical Georgetown parking confusion.