- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

The setting of Maestro, the dining room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tysons Corner, is elegant: thick carpeting in attractive green and golden rosy colors, comfortable upholstered chairs, candles on the tables, a wide-open kitchen with busy chefs in starched white jackets and delightful silver animals on the tables.

Not real animals, nor real silver. French artist Gerard Bouvier created a series of animals made of spoons and forks to grace the tables of Maestro. Birds, ducks, fish, cocks and frogs. They add charm, wit and sparkle.

The chef de cuisine is young Fabio Trabocchi, a native of Ancona, Italy. Mr. Trabocchi worked at London's Floriana restaurant and opened Bice on Capitol Hill; he was named "best young chef of 1999" at the Carlton London Restaurant Awards.

At Maestro, he offers contemporary Italian dishes. There's no doubt that Mr. Trabocchi is a talented chef, not only a maestro with his cooking, but an artist with an eye for color and space; every dish comes to the table looking gorgeous.

If there is a weakness, it's that many of his creations are too complicated with too many ingredients so that the essence of the dish is lost in the details of presentation.

The dining concept at Maestro is unusual. There is no a la carte menu. Rather, there are two types of fixed-price menus: La Tradizione (the tradition) and L'Evoluzione (the evolution). Each menu has several starters, fish main courses, meat entrees and desserts; prices are for two, three or four courses. Mixing and matching is possible.

There's also La Creazione, a tasting menu for which the chef creates "a sequence of dishes out of [his] inspiration of the moment." When we asked what the inspiration of that evening might be, we were informed that it was a "surprise" and no information was available on any of the three ($54), five ($72) or seven ($85) courses La Creasione includes. Since most diners have favorites, dislikes, allergies and so forth, a total surprise is not seductive.

There is also a seven-course "travel in Italy" menu with each dish from a separate region. This "viaggio" includes such regional specialties as Tuscan fish soup, pigeon and cabbage consomme from Veneto, lamb fricassee from Liguria and saffron risotto from Lombardy. Dinner began on a recent evening with a treat from the chef a tiny oyster and sliver of scallop in a small glass of fish consomme, an unusual and tasty, albeit salty, appetite whetter for fish lovers.

We tried some of each of both traditional and evolution menus and results were uneven. An appetizer of a single huge scallop on a bed of chopped artichoke, baked in a shell with a creamy butter sauce was splendid. The scallop, tender and perfumed of the sea, was enhanced by the bits of vegetable and the sauce. A perfect dish.

The tartare trio of crab, scallops and salmon (the crab and scallops are cooked, not raw) with caviar is another good starter, although not as satisfying and unusual as the baked scallop. The three mouthfuls are also very pretty to look at with their herb and vegetable decoration.

Sauteed langoustine tails with a vegetable compote from the traditional menu was not a successful starter. The langoustine tails were of an unpleasant, mushy consistency. The accompanying Sicilian vegetable compote is a good ratatouille encased in a roasted pepper. The dish, like many of Mr. Trabocchi's presentations, is beautiful to behold but is unnecessarily complex.

Celery root tagliolini with pan-seared foie gras also was a disppointment. The al dente pasta was pleasant with a light sauce, tasting only faintly of the woodsy morel mushrooms promised by the menu description. The slice of foie gras was not incorporated into the dish but served on the side of the pasta. A little more "evoluzione" is required to make this dish the success it could be.

On the other hand, beef tenderloin "Rossini" was delicious a first-class cut, cooked exactly as ordered, tender and full of flavor. The meat is accompanied by a variety of fresh vegetables and a smooth, silky dark Madeira sauce that brings out the best in the beef. We ordered it without the "Rossini," a slice of foie gras atop the filet.

Other appetizers offered by Mr. Trabocchi on his two menus include a porcini soup with cappeletti (little hats) of buffalo mozzarella, potato-filled ravioli in black truffle sauce, the current trendy favorite of English pea soup and risotto with black truffles.

From the sea, the traditional menu includes roasted turbot with fennel and olives and a cold fish soup. Poached sea bass and cold lobster come from the evolution menu. Meats include a spiced roasted duck with sour cherry sauce and rack of veal, osso buco, fava beans and English peas. It's a well-varied menu, and well cooked.

The cheese trolley offers a large selection of ripe cheeses from France, Italy, England and the United States. Desserts include pistachio souffle and a delicious version of tiramisu with amaretto ice cream. Instead of the usual sponge cake or lady fingers, the cake is a meringue, an unusual and airy variation of a classic dessert.

Maestro is closed for lunch during the month of August, but reopens after Labor Day with "oggi" (today), a two-course "business" lunch for $20 (one course $13.50, three $28). First courses include Little Neck clams and corn soup, marinated salmon tartare with potato crepes, tomato soup with mozzarella and several salads.

Main courses include a veal chop, grilled rib-eye steak, cheese ravioli with spinach and mushrooms and a vegetable minestrone with grilled tuna. Creme brulee with blood orange coulis, cheese or a chocolate delight round out the lunch menu. Together with a glass of the pleasant light Italian red house wine for $6.50, that's a bargain.

Service can be attentive but it can be neglectful, inexcusable in a restaurant of this quality (and with Maestro's pretensions). On one occasion, we sat for 10 minutes while waiters bustled by but no one offered either menu or drink. Perhaps Mr. Trabocchi should take to heart the caution from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that appears on the menu: "The biggest refinement in all kind of art is synthesis of simplicity."

RESTAURANT: Maestro, Ritz-Carlton, 1700 Tysons Blvd., Tysons Corner; 703/917-5498

HOURS: Lunch (beginning Sept. 4) 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

PRICES: Fixed-price menus: two courses $38 or $42; three courses $48, $52 or $54; four courses $58 or $62; desserts and cheese $8; brunch $58 including a glass of champagne

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Complimentary parking in the hotel garage

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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