Lukewarm Reception

Among starters, the Maryland lump crab cakes were finely seasoned and hardly greasy, two meaty pancakes served with horseradish mayonnaise. These paired nicely with cornmeal-breaded oysters, buttery shellfish individually dipped in meal and fried. (The oysters, in fact, inspired in me a craving so intense A not that kind of craving! -- I spent the next weekend in the Keys, ordering oysters in hopes of replicating the experience. I failed.) A pleasing alternative to the fried appetizers, the spring rolls were served cold -- intentionally and traditionally. Made with lump crab meat, rice noodles, and fragrant basil, cilantro, and mint, two large rolls were wrapped in rice pancakes and spiked with black toasted sesame seeds, peanuts, and a lingering sweet chili sauce. Gazpacho, though touted a taste-bud killer by our waitress, was instead a refreshing Spanish-school broth of pureed cucumbers, tomatoes, and vinegar. Actually, it might have benefited from a bit of the burn that the spring rolls' chili sauce had in abundance.

The temperature tantrum extended to the main course. Three slices of chicken breast stuffed with long-grain rice, water chestnuts, and shrimp were arranged prettily on a bed of crisp noodles with stir-fried vegetables. The chicken, however, was barely heated, dry, and flimsy, dominated by an overall flavor of curry. This spice, loved by some and disdained by others, is too distinctive an element to arrive unannounced, and should be included in the menu description. A charbroiled hamburger, an advertised ten ounces, looked more like five. It's possible this thin Frisbee once weighed in at the big ten, but unlike stonewashed jeans, ground beef isn't supposed to come preshrunk.

The catch of the day, mako shark, fared far better. A large fillet filled the plate, testimony to the fact that this was once a very big creature. Though this fish is too often overcooked, the Union mako dripped tender tears with every forkful; served with corn salad, a spicy salsa, and flour tortillas, it made a tasty, healthy meal. The only drawback was the accompanying black bean creme fraiche, rather tasteless but with a wild, indiscriminate kick to it. The first burning mouthful of spice I took to be an unmixed dollop of cayenne; I tasted very little after that. Nothing ruins a palate like a huge dose of pepper.

Just as nothing ruins a dining experience more than watching customers being screened. After the meal, as we waited for the valet to retrieve our car, we recognized our slippery nemesis at the door, and noted among ourselves that the antagonistic actions of the staff outside the restaurant are completely at odds with the welcoming stance of those inside. Hyperkinetically, he rearranged his velvet barriers at least a half-dozen times, in obvious anticipation of the lines of people he would soon refuse entrance. In a pattern that seemed arbitrary, he turned away some barfly clientele with the phrase "dinner only," yet allowed in others who blatantly stated that alcohol, not food, was their sustenance of choice. A footnote of interest, of course, is that the restaurant, at the moment of our exit, had not even come close to capacity. Suddenly I remembered why I prefer to confine my evenings to unpretentious, homey encounters with friends, food, and fruit of the vine.

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