Cervantes 16918 Dumfries Rd., Dumfries (703) 221-7803 Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Dinner prices: Soups and appetizers $2.50 to $6.95; entrees $10.50 to $15.95. Cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Choice. Nonsmoking area available.
While no one yet is comparing restaurateur Francisco Rodriguez to Christopher Columbus, he admittedly has taken an adventurous gamble in opening an upscale dining place in Dumfries in southeast Prince William County.
The restaurant specializes in the food of his native Catalonia, a region in northern Spain that borders France. Indeed, the menu at Cervantes reflects French and Spanish influences common to the region.
From the outside, the white stucco building with the brown tile roof blends in with its neighbors, a string of gas stations, motels and convenience stores clustered by Exit 51 off I-95.
But inside, one is surprised and impressed by the artfully decorated, distinctive, multilevel interior. Four dining rooms on three levels, connected by gracefully arched windows and doorways, strike a balance between open and intimate. Three rooms are painted a deep blue-green and the fourth a carnation pink. Gold-framed reproductions of oil paintings by European artists and faux ferns and ficus trees are dramatically lit by tiny spotlights hung from a matte black ceiling. A wallpaper border of decorative molding in pink and green gives each room a classical finishing touch.
The above-average prices raise expectations; a typical dinner for two with sangria comes to about $70. At the five-month mark, one's expectations are not always satisfied, but there are enough successes to warrant optimism.
The kitchen sometimes has a light touch with seasonings and sauces. For example, I was primed for the traditional Spanish garlic soup, sopa de ajo, usually a hearty, heady, garlicky broth thickened by bread, and fortified by an egg. What arrived, however, was a pleasant but restrained version.
On the other hand, the kitchen supplied the requisite blast of garlic in the aioli, a mayonnaise-like spread served here with melba toast and bread. A terrific gazpacho was also done in the classic way -- and with just the right tang of vinegar.
Another lively opener is the delicious, garlicky shrimp, gambas al ajillo, which can be fired with crushed red peppers upon request.
The French influence is evident from listings such as the snails and a flavorful pate of chicken and veal served with toast points.
As an appetizer, fresh asparagus is served either cold in a piquant mustard sauce or hot in a sunny yellow, but undistinguished, mousseline sauce. A better dish, however, a mix of asparagus tips and artichoke hearts, rises above the commonplace with the addition of fennel to the vinaigrette.
A tasty vegetable side dish, typical of Catalonia, is a small casserole of creamed spinach sweetened with raisins and topped with melted cheese.
The entrees, mostly in the $12 to $15 range, are not as consistently successful as the appetizers. Overcooking was the most frequent fault, although it affected only some of the seafood in the still enjoyable cazuela de mariscos, a tasty stew of fish and shellfish in a rich broth. A thick fillet of beef was acceptable, but had been broiled past the requested pink-in-the-center. A less successful duck entree consisted of fanned slices of somewhat tough breast meat interspersed with wedges of wine-poached pears.
The Catalonian stew of chicken and shrimp, pollastre amb gambes, was complemented by a cognac-spiked sauce, but some off-flavor shrimp were a detraction. The biggest disappointment were veal kidneys that tasted older than their small size and tender texture suggested.
On the other hand, I would recommend the nicely roasted quail, but the presentation was awkward, as if the bird had tripped and fallen into its nest of match-stick potatoes.
The homemade desserts are pleasant: the pudding-like Catalan custard, a light chocolate mousse, and an airy almond cake with buttery frosting centered in a pool of delicious vanilla custard sauce.
The wines are modest in number and price, and a small pitcher of sangria or the agreeable champagne version, tisana, is offered for $7.25.
The tuxedoed service staff, mostly natives of Spain or France, is experienced and knowledgeable, but the courses arrive at a pace somewhere between relaxed and slow.
Although Cervantes is certainly a pretty place to linger, my lingering would be enhanced if the rich, delightful sounds of Albeniz's Capricio Catalan were substituted for the generic background music.