- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Morrison House is a small, elegant Relais & Chateaux hotel in Old Town Alexandria. Its restaurant, Elysium, seats only 24 diners in a somewhat formal, somewhat pretentious, old-fashioned high-ceilinged dining room. But once a diner is seated at one of the nine tables, each adorned with delicate blue and white Portuguese china, bright silverware and a small bouquet of flowers, the occasion brightens.

The servers are friendly, down-to-earth and attentive; the focaccia is fresh (made in-house) and delicious, as are the three kinds of butter that come with it (salt, sweet and truffled). So far, so good.

Elysium is not the usual restaurant, hotel or otherwise: there’s no printed menu, despite a lengthy and interesting wine list with an extensive and well priced choice of wines by the glass, including about a dozen different champagnes and sparkling wines. The Austrian-born chef, Robert Ulrich, comes to the table to tell his clients what’s available in the kitchen — vegetables, fish, meats. A menu is put together according to the tastes, wishes and whims of the diner. Unusual, but effective.

The regular $74 chef’s tasting menu consists of six courses, which can be paired with a flight of wines for an additional $37 (or $95 for premium wines): the chef’s amuse bouche, two appetizer courses, an entree, a sorbet and dessert and coffee. Servings are small; the full meal is not as overwhelming as it sounds. But Mr. Ulrich is very accommodating and will make the meal as elaborate or as simple as requested. He makes notes of anything his guests don’t want to eat.

At a recent visit to Elysium, Mr. Ulrich told us that he had sea scallops, wild salmon, tuna, duck, beef tenderloin and rack of lamb that evening. We put together a limited menu of a starter, a main course and salad. We would decide about dessert later.

The chef’s treat of the evening was a miniature slice of creamy, silken duck pate with the hint of hazelnuts, topped with a spoonful of micro greens. It was a single delicious mouthful (maybe two), just enough to whet the appetite.

We began our meal with a rich butternut squash soup and a serving of a single perfectly grilled scallop on a round of polenta, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. The scallop was enhanced with a little reduction of scallion and some of the tiniest hot radicchio imaginable. The thick, homey soup revealed hidden treasures in the bottom of the bowl — celery dice and sauteed mushrooms. Perfect starters, both.

Main courses are prepared with care and a sure touch. Two small pieces of beef tenderloin, cooked exactly as ordered, came to the table on a bed of couscous, adorned with delicious buttery miniature broccoli rabe. The rack of lamb — two chops on the bone and two deboned — was tender and delicate. Superb. The lamb rested on the same polenta cake as the scallop. This repetition seems incongruous when the chef goes to the trouble of making menus to order; serving the same starch with two such different preparations was perhaps a mistake. On the side with the lamb nestled more miniature vegetables, including the tiniest carrot I have ever seen. The braised endive was particularly delicious.

Each dish is prepared exactly as it should be for maximum flavor and delicacy. Mr. Ulrich doesn’t overwhelm dishes with fancy sauces, although he does not eschew a sauce or a reduction when one is required, and always with a light touch.

Nor do the offered dishes, or the “surprises,” as the chef calls them, include fancy concoctions — no vegetables tarts, crepes, quiches or slow-cooking stews. He lets the ingredients shine in their freshness, adorned lightly. His cooking is straightforward French, with lightness of perfection of style and ingredients.

Our salads fit into the same mold: a watercress salad with a small triangle of Gouda and a frisee salad with a small square of what tasted like a French St. Paulin, were both sauced with a light vinaigrette and accompanied by a scattering of lingonberries. Pretty, simple and fresh.

Dessert was the only disappointment of the evening. We shared the plate of miniature French pastries that conclude the chef’s menu, but, with the exception of a small slice of excellent pumpkin pie and a pistachio truffle, the pastries were not up to the rest of the meal. We would have done better to order a dessert from the Grille Room menu (vanilla creme brulee, chocolate souffle cake or a caramel and apple French cheesecake). Coffee, on the other hand, was excellent, filtered and served in a silver pot left at our table.

Elysium serves dinner only from Tuesday to Saturday. The cozy Grille Room, with a piano bar, serves lunch and dinner, specializing in steaks and chops in the evening and a mix of salads, main courses and sandwiches at lunch. Prices are reasonable. Mr. Ulrich oversees both restaurants.

The pianist performs in the Grille Room beginning at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday until closing time. Beginning at 9:45, guests are invited to sing along, accompanied by the pianist. Many do.

The Chef of Your Own, as the restaurant calls its Elysium program, is unique in the Washington area. It’s a welcome change from the ornate, stilted and over-the-top descriptions on so many menus. The food is simple, knowledgeable and sophisticated. Mr. Ulrich demonstrates that less truly is more.


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