Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday (brunch). Closed Monday and Tuesday. Prices: Dinner for two including appetizers, drinks and desserts costs about $60 to $70 with tax and tip. Reservations recommended. Cards: Visa and Mastercard.
If Heart in Hand could just refine its cooking a bit, it could become the country American version of Auberge Chez Francois. The Auberge has become an institution not just because of the food, but because of its setting -- that wonderful twisting drive through the countryside, the charm of the restaurant itself with its French country stucco, fireplace and stained glass windows overlooking the fields. Heart in Hand, in its own setting and its own style, is just as appealing. Once you get off Rte. 66, you twist through the woods and over ravines until you rattle across the old railroad crossing in the town of Clifton, a storybook version of the late 1800s with gingerbread houses and white picket fences.
The restaurant is in the building where the old general store once was and it's almost worth the 45-minute drive from the D.C. area just to see it. It's a spectacular renovation, with battered wood plank floors, crusty brick and narrow wood panelled walls painted country shades of red and green. The walls are covered with spectacular quilts. Antique hearts are everywhere -- in patterns on the punched tin lamp shades, as rustic wood candlesticks on the tables, shaped into baskets, brushed on porcelain pottery. It's a setting to remember -- and to look forward to on a lazy evening as you're stuck in Rte 66 traffic.
The food isn't as memorable -- yet -- as the rest of the restaurant. We say "yet" because there is enough good food, enough flashes of inspiration, to make us think the kitchen has plenty of room to grow. The first signs are warm ones -- terrific little batter biscuits served in a country basket, brought to the table as soon as you sit down. It's a small menu for dinner, less than half a dozen appetizers and less than a dozen entrees. Begin with crabmeat-stuffed mushrooms, the nicest version we've had -- plump, juicy shreds of crabmeat with just a touch of curry, tucked in lovely fresh mushrooms; we can't tell you how many bedraggled mushrooms we've had at other restaurants. The salads are excellent, too, especially the Gorgonzola, scattered with toasty pecans and lots of cheese, and the house salad, served with a good garlicky vinaigrette with a hint of orange (it's a house specialty -- even appeared in Gourmet Magazine's "You Asked for It").
Soups, so far, have been lackluster.
We've been more frustrated with the main courses, because one of the dishes might be delicious and another so pedestrian that they seem to have come from different kitchens. The catfish is one of our favorites -- sweet, moist, crusted with cornmeal, drizzled with pecan butter. The filet mignon is terrific -- fat, crusty, a good deal for $12.95. But then the entrees start to stumble. Veal Heart in Hand sounds good -- sauteed veal scallops in a white wine sauce -- but on a recent evening it was nothing more than an old-fashioned stew, like mother used to make -- which would be all right, if the veal weren't so dry and stringy. Twice recently we've ordered the fresh roast loin of pork, a beautiful big chop, with the bone -- and twice the kitchen has insisted on overcooking it till the poor thing's lifeless and gray, even after we asked for it pink (pork is perfectly safe medium rare). If they'd cook it right, it'd be a wonderful, simple dish. Chicken has also been overdone. Barbecued shrimp, on the other hand, have been perfectly cooked -- big and beautiful, too -- but the smoky sauce is too dense and overpowering.
The thing that's so frustrating about some of these dishes is that they sound so delicious -- the ideas behind them are good -- but the kitchen doesn't quite pull them off. All the entrees come with side dishes, though, that are often among the stars of the meal -- such as simple, chunky sweet potato puree and half a baked potato drizzled with sweet butter. And the desserts are superb -- especially a bittersweet, dense chocolate pie and best of all, homemade ice cream. If they're offering raspberry ice cream the night you go, absolutely save room for it. We've never had better.
The price tag for a meal at Heart in Hand, especially with a bottle of champagne or wine, can be a little steep -- $60 or more for two. But this restaurant is such a pleasure that you're paying for an evening as well as the food. And on those terms, it's worth it.