Michael Bendebba is at it again.
Last year he transformed the ugly duckling steakhouse on Route 301 in La Plata -- the former Golden Corral -- into the elegant, upscale Gustavo's. Now he has taken the doddering restaurant at Hawthorne Country Club (at Hawthorne and Mitchell roads) and created Claudia's -- a warm-feeling steakhouse open to the public.
Bendebba's first extreme makeover (Gustavo's) enjoys a large and loyal following and has received at least one national restaurant ranking worth mentioning -- the Triple Diamond Award for 2004, given by AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association.
This bodes well for Claudia's.
Bendebba's latest transformation has taken several months to accomplish. Walls knocked down, windows replaced, the bar and kitchen expanded, a sound system installed, and frosted wall sconces offering subdued lighting have been part of the undertaking. The full effect is a decor that emphasizes earth tones and offers panoramic views of Hawthorne's fairways and the surrounding countryside.
As is often true of country club restaurants, Hawthorne had never tried to be a self-sustaining endeavor. Its purpose was more the care and feeding of the swimmers, golfers and tennis players who are the members.
Neighbor Bob Healy, a Hawthorne member since 1977, refers fondly to the bygone era as "Gladys's World." Gladys Lee ran the kitchen at Hawthorne and featured the southern fried cooking so in vogue then and regional favorites such as Maryland stuffed ham. She also offered her own creations, most notably, her soft-shell crab and ham sandwich, which was served at lunchtime.
But things have changed. Cindy Ransome, Lee's niece who has worked at Hawthorne's restaurant since she was 13, is now the manager. Bendebba, Ransome and the classically trained executive chef, Tony Kasik, have merged their worlds to present a new era of country club dining in Southern Maryland.
As dramatic as the physical changes are, Kasik's kitchen is what catapults Claudia's into the top tier of Southern Maryland dining experiences. Kasik spent years in Georgetown at Citronelle and Mendocino, and his training wears well. Customers get D.C. quality (at D.C. prices) without the hassle of travel.
Claudia's is billed as a steakhouse, but more than half of the entrees are not red meat. Kasik starts dinner with a gift from the chef: "something with contrasting flavors and textures," he says, "amuse bouche -- an amusement for your mouth." If you have a strong appetizer or salad, he will provide a bit of sorbet to help cleanse the pallet.
Start off dinner with ahi tuna tartare ($11), thin slices of sashimi-grade tuna dressed in a citrus sauce and cucumber slices atop a bed of micro greens, or fried calamari ($9), baby squid lightly dusted, flash fried and served with spicy pepperoncini and chipotle aioli. The salads are also excellent, particularly the baby spinach salad ($6), served with onions, mushrooms, hearts of palm and a hot bacon vinaigrette dressing.
The Caesar salad, "The Original Airman's Salade" from a recipe created in Tijuana in 1947 ($6), has shaved Parmesan on garlic toast points in lieu of croutons.
The steaks range from the 16-ounce herb-infused rib-eye ($21) to the huge 22-ounce"Cowboy" porterhouse steak ($42).
There are also several seafood and pasta entrees. The cioppino ($24) is a mix of little-neck clams, mussels, calamari, shrimp and the fish of the day in a tomato broth served over linguine. The pan-roasted chicken ($15) is a breast of chicken sauteed with roasted garlic and sun-dried tomato ragout, paired with sauteed baby spinach and served over linguine. The chicken is garnished with an oven-roasted garlic bulb with the top sliced off, to reveal a handful of aromatic cloves encased in their own parchment. Wonderful.
Lunch at Claudia's features several salad and sandwich selections. The Steak and Brittany Fry Salade ($11.50) consists of thin strips of grilled flank steak atop baby field greens tossed in a Gorgonzola peppercorn dressing and finished with cucumbers, tomatoes, chevre cheese and Brittany fries -- a very thin shoestring version of french-fried potatoes.
The Pan-Seared Ahi Nicoise ($12.50) is yellowtail tuna atop the baby field greens dressed in tasty champagne vinaigrette surrounded by kalamata olives, hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers and tomatoes. Excellent.
We visited a half-dozen times during the construction phase at Claudia's, and the process of the evolution from drywall and spackling to a finished dining room didn't detract from our dining experience. Chef Kasik has yet to disappoint us.
As Ransome, who has worked in the various incarnations of Hawthorne's restaurants for 30 years, told us, "At last we have a restaurant."