The forbidding, concrete towers of Crystal City do not reveal much. So finding a sparkling, contemporary atrium dining room inside the Embassy Suites Hotel is like discovering a geode in an ordinary rock.
The Velvet Turtle restaurant provides exceptionally comfortable chairs from which to enjoy the creative and restful interior done in tones of mauve, cranberry and steel gray. Relax to the soothing sound of the waterfalls. The overhead trellis-like structure, lined with tiny lights, creates an intimate dining area in the open courtyard where plant-lined balconies circle skyward for 10 stories.
Such a classy setting in a jungle of high-rise office buildings makes The Velvet Turtle an attractive spot to take someone for lunch.
Although this review is limited to the luncheon menu, there is a significant similarity between the lunch and dinner offerings. Perhaps the most noteworthy difference is price. Lunch can be a good value, with most of the entrees between $5.95 and $7.95, while the dinner prices balloon to more familiar Washington levels. For example, one of the most expensive items on the lunch menu, the bleu cheese steak at $9.95, rings up a $15.50 tab at dinner.
The Velvet Turtle's unusually attractive setting, like an aperitif, heightens the anticipation of a good meal. The results from the Velvet Turtle's kitchen, however, are mixed. The fact that the kitchen delivers on some dishes and not on others may be attributable more to the newness of the establishment than to a lack of culinary skill.
Like the dash of blue neon that the designers used to highlight the bar, the kitchen uses seasonings to give a distinctive edge to some ordinary dishes. For example, the pizelles sonora, a pretty pizza-like appetizer, gets some extra zing from the fresh, chopped chilis dotting the melted cheeses. The guacamole used as a garnish is excellent -- fresh and well seasoned with garlic.
Another flavorful example, the rich, peppery Cajun seafood gumbo, was very satisfying even though the flaked pieces of seafood were outweighed by the amount of sausage in the broth.
And if you like pepper, you'll delight in the hail of cracked peppercorns blanketing the sirloin pepper steak. The high-quality beef is enhanced by a bordelaise sauce laced with cognac.
Almost as good, the breast of chicken pecan was covered with a buttery sauce flavored with ground pecans.
For a lighter lunch entree, enjoy the moist and fruity strips of duck in the warm roast duckling salad plate.
Some dishes, however, like the tarragon chicken salad, could have used more seasoning. Although the salad tasted freshly made, the taste of tarragon was scarce. The chicken salad is also one of the fillings listed for the huge croissant sandwiches accompanied by a pasta salad that was dull and oily.
With the notable exception of the fresh oysters, the seafood dishes such as the lobster cocktail, shrimp and scallop brochette and the baked scrod could have used a flavor boost. Even the clam chowder was lackluster and mostly broth. On a brighter note, the chef has created a superb cocktail sauce that nearly revived the tired lobster cocktail.
The breadbaskets, filled with a changing array of rolls and sweetbreads, are a plus, as are several of the desserts, such as the chocolate napoleon, pecan pie and chocolate mousse cake.
However, all is not perfect with the desserts. The cheesecake swimming in strawberry sauce was only so-so. The selection of desserts is brought to the table on a tray. Although this is a good idea in theory, the mousses, custard and fruit had been table-hopping long past their dewy, fresh prime, which lessened their appeal. Sometimes you get what you see: In the case of the fresh fruit cup, the out-of-season fruit tasted as stale as the sample looked.
The wine list is a moderately priced assortment of imported and domestic wines with a California emphasis. The house wine from Papagni Vineyards in California is $2 a glass and $7.50 a bottle. The Papagni white is moderately dry.
If you're hunting for a lovely place to rendezvous for lunch that has charm and urban sophistication, the Velvet Turtle, open since August, is worth a visit. There is still too much of a range in quality to say that the food is always good. But there are signs of imagination and skill coming from the kitchen that, perhaps, bode well.