The capital's Cajun craze is no longer restricted to Washington. With varying degrees of success, an increasing number of suburban restaurants appear to have adapted the trademark blackened redfish to their menus.
At least one restaurant, Banks, of Alexandria, is carrying the concept a few steps further, rounding out its American menu to include foods such as fiery "Louisiana-style" chicken and spicy Cajun burgers, and broadening its musical entertainment to include live jazz on weekends.
To be sure, Banks looks as if it were built to showcase a combo. The single dining room, bathed in tones of gray and maroon, resembles a handsome band shell, built more for acoustics than esthetics with its high ceilings and bare walls. It's a spartan space broken only by raised seating to one side, which, along with the tuxedo-clad host and waiters, adds to the supper club feel. Its location in the Foxchase complex suggests moderation in terms of price, but such is not necessarily the case at Banks, where dinner entrees range from $8.25 to $14.95.
Expectations are thus raised, and usually met at the start, for dinner commences with a basket of warm, thinly sliced homemade French bread, its flavor reminiscent of sourdough.
Assuredly the soups are a safe course: there are clam chowder, oyster and French onion soups from which to choose, in addition to a daily special, which recently included a fine vegetable beef soup, homey-tasting and laden with fresh vegetables. A cup of the oyster soup was a flavorful puree, perhaps lacking in salt but otherwise interesting. Clam chowder is only the least bit floury, but so full of fresh-tasting clams that you tend to overlook the fact.
Appetizers also include several seafood cocktails, a pa te', asparagus (mismatched with its vinaigrette), and a plate of four mushroom caps stuffed with crab meat and topped with an eggy sauce; the effect was that of a mushroom omelet, and a pricey one at $4.75.
Banks' housemade dressings rescue the simple dinner salads from anonymity and include an excellent blue cheese-rich topping and an interesting, sweetish poppy dressing, which could well serve as a meat glaze.
Main courses (which include a salad and a tasty mix of fresh julienned vegetables) have been hit or miss on recent visits. Of the Cajun adaptations, the moist chicken cordon bleu proved agreeably piquant, dressed in a peppery blend of spices. But the ubiquitous blackened redfish arrived well past its peak and smelled excessively fishy.
Several dishes suffer from a heavy handedness with seasonings, as in a peppercorn steak that was overwhelmed by peppercorns, and a ginger roasted duck that had too much ginger and hardly a hint of what the menu promised: a sauce of orange, blackberry and brandy. To its credit, the meat was well prepared and flavorful on its own.
As for dessert, I'd be certain to order again the smooth, rich tasting French vanilla ice cream, which we were told was homemade, or any other flavor . The pound cake has been alternately moist and dry recently, and the "chocolate decadence" -- looking more like a hockey puck than a confection -- fails to excite.
Service is youthful and friendly, and the staff appears knowledgeable about the food and its presentation. However, the eagerness to please can be excessive. Patrons don't need to have their water glasses filled to the rim every other minute and aren't necessarily desirous of overfamiliarity on the part of the staff.
All things considered, I'd go to Banks not so much for the Cajun fare it offers, but for the American dishes that more often appeal than disappoint. And what better way to finish a meal than with a drink and a performance by the delightful Shirley Horn Trio?