Resort restaurants can make themselves over from time to time, secure in the knowledge that a captive audience and deep-pocketed owners will eventually smooth over any transformative wrinkles. And that brings me to the Lansdowne Grille, a steakhouse a few miles east of Leesburg off Route 7 in the Lansdowne Resort.
The Grille is one of three restaurants at Lansdowne, and the only one that really welcomes non-guests to a sit-down meal. Last summer the resort announced that the Grille, then in its seventh year, was redecorating and had hired a new chef, Peter Palisi III, who last cooked at Walt Disney World in Florida. After allowing two months for the chef to settle in, I drove over for a bite.
The food and service were decent--if at times inconsistent--the wine list top-notch, but the menu and the Grille had been made over only superficially. The result is a schizophrenic decor and fare that keeps a diner guessing what the theme is and where the project is going. Is it Southwestern or Cajun? Chippendale or Chippewa? Steakhouse or Bauhaus?
At 6 on a weeknight, the Grille was about a third full. My wife and I were seated immediately without a reservation. Glancing about, you notice the new plush green carpeting with an Oriental motif, the Colonial blue patterned wall cloth, Chippendale-style chairs and dark mahogany paneling--all bespeaking a subdued Victorian masculinity.
But glance up and the wall sconces and chandeliers are distinctively prairie-style. Chair seats and backs are plum colored, but the fabric wrapping the outside of the chairs has a busy orange Southwestern pattern. And the split-level restaurant's vast bank of floor-to-ceiling windows with aluminum dividers is overwhelmingly modern. Resort spokeswoman Dianne Murphy says more changes are anticipated, though when and in what direction are unclear.
The Grille, which styles itself "Loudoun's Steakhouse," offers the usual selection of steaks, chops and seafood. Meats range from a mammoth 24-ounce porterhouse ($28.95) to barbecue pork chops ($18.25), and include a New York strip, filet mignon, rib-eye, veal and lamb chops, and free-range roasted chicken. Seafood, flown in daily, according to the menu, includes halibut ($22.95), tuna steak ($23.95), farm-raised salmon fillet, a seafood linguine, Maine lobster, plus a catch of the day.
The Grille's multiple personalities assert themselves in the appetizers, which include escargot, blackened tuna with Cajun remoulade, Southwestern linguine (tossed with roasted corn, lobster--from the Rio Grande, I suppose--and lobster oil) and smoked trout with jalapeno mayonnaise.
Entree prices do not include side dishes such as potatoes, mushrooms, grits, rice, spinach or asparagus, which run $4.50 each. Servings are hefty: two orders will easily suffice. We ordered sauteed mushrooms and steamed asparagus--very good and so-so, respectively.
Our waiter, pleasant and fairly efficient, enticed me with a veal special, and I ordered escargot in puff pastry ($9.95) as an appetizer. Kathy tried a 12-ounce filet mignon ($24.95) and lobster bisque ($8.95).
The award-winning wine list, amended quarterly by sommelier Mary Watson, features a super selection of late vintage California wines and gamely includes a dozen Virginia offerings. If the restaurant is trying on different faces, the wine list is decidedly monolithic: when a customer requests something foreign, waiters are instructed to steer them to a taste-alike American substitute. "I'm a big proponent of American wines," explained Watson, adding that holdouts can ask for her Reserve List of Un-American Wines. Twenty wines are sold by the glass; we tried a young, tart '97 Acacia pinot noir and a fuller, softer '96 Lakespring merlot ($7).
The rich lobster bisque was deliciously smooth with a peppery tang that traditional bisques lack. The escargot disappointed. It looked cute, with the little puff pastries posing as shells of the hot snails. But the garlic had been burned in the broiler, spoiling the taste, and the snails--unprotected by strong fresh garlic--were now greasy and chewy.
The veal special consisted of two veal chops, thinly fileted and fanned over string beans and mashed potatoes tartar, and drizzled with a rosemary demi-glaze. The veal was tender and cooked to a perfect medium. But except for a sprig for garnish, the rosemary was undetectable to my palate. At $27.95 I expected a special, even superb dish, and instead got something that was very good but unsubtle, even pedestrian, stacked as it was on a pile of beans and potatoes.
The highlight was Kathy's filet mignon, as good a filet as I've ever tried, with a side of tasty bearnaise sauce. Judging plain steaks generally comes down to the quality of the meat; Lansdowne clearly gets the good stuff.
We split the Grille's signature pecan pie for dessert, but a careless kitchen again queered an otherwise beautiful concoction: in reheating the pie, the top layer of pecans had been burned black. Sigh.
I'd like to say I hit the Grille on a bad night, but I also tried it for lunch and again found an inconsistent hand in the kitchen. My sausage andouille soup was an inventive, hearty pick-me-up for a dreary day. And my blackened salmon salad ($14.95) featured a nice piece of grilled salmon with a dab of remoulade on a bed of baby spinach. But the salad also included a ludicrously large helping of black-eyed peas and some cold, oily roasted red peppers that tainted what could have been a winner of a dish.
Chef Palisi, born and raised in New Orleans, says he will stick with the Cajun influence as far as the non-entrees go, even as he changes the menu for the fall. But the bottom line at the moment is that the Grille is a pricey work in progress that fails as often as it succeeds and is in serious need of consistency, finesse and, yes, an identity.
William W. Horne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
The Lansdowne Grille
* Address: Lansdowne Resort, 44050 Woodridge Pkwy., Leesburg, 703-729-4073.
* Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; light fare menu, 3-5 p.m. daily; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
* Prices: Lunch appetizers, $4.95-$8.50; salads and sandwiches, $6.75-$14.95; entrees, $12.95-$15.95. Dinner appetizers, soups and salads, $5.25-$12.95; entrees, $18.25-$28.95.
* Miscellaneous: Catering on and off site. Private dining rooms. Chef's Table dinners tailored to diners' tastes available in the Grille's kitchen Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, starting at $65 per person. Smoking in bar area. Valet parking available. All major credit cards accepted.