- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Clyde’s is one of the city’s most successful restaurant groups. Beginning with burgers and a good bar on M Street in Georgetown, Stuart Davidson’s empire continued to grow. Now, after Mr. Davidson’s death and under the aegis of his partner, John Laytham, the newest addition to the group in Rockville, about 20 minutes from Clyde’s in Georgetown, is Tower Oaks Lodge.

Tower Oaks is unique — a bit of the Adirondacks transplanted to the Washington suburbs. It’s a beautiful, highly creative restaurant filled with gorgeous objects, stunning lighting and lovely fabrics. Richard McCooey, former owner of the 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown and now a restaurant consultant, is in part responsible for the extraordinary decor.

The restaurant (despite its name, guests cannot lodge there for more than the length of a meal) sits in isolation overlooking a 21-acre nature preserve incorporating birch trees, ferns, blueberry bushes and rhododendron. Guests cross a small wooden bridge over a pretty pond with a little waterfall, goldfish and waving grasses.

The heart of Tower Oaks is a two-story timber barn moved down from Vermont by the Weather Hill Restoration Co., which is responsible for the design and decor of the building. At either end of what is called the Great Room is a massive stone fireplace surmounted with a magnificent moose head.

The large room has booths (just the right height for comfortable dining) rather than tables, suitable for two to six diners. Wherever the eye falls, there’s an object of beauty related to the Northeast: antique leather fishing bags, beautifully carved life-sized wooden Indians, real stuffed cougars and bears, fishing tackle, baskets, woolen blankets. Booths are separated by glass enclosed miniature canoes. A huge three-tiered chandelier with fern patterns on the shade hangs in the center of the Great Room, echoed by smaller ones throughout the room.

Through the windows along one wall, the view is of graceful birch trees, illuminated artificially at night and with warm sunlight in the daytime, a sight which completes the northern woodsy feeling.

Next to the Great Room is the Saranac Bar with a large dining area where twigs and posts under a large skylight create a casual, airy atmosphere. The Boathouse Bar is decorated with vintage lake boats upside-down on the ceiling.

The Tack Room, lined with cherrywood paneling, is decorated with antique saddles and trophies, tweed and leather banquettes, silver goblets, polo sticks and other equestrian accoutrements. Hallways are decorated with witty arrangements of paddles, barbecuing forks, wooden duck decoys and framed fishing flies.

Tower Oaks has been open for almost 14 months. It’s a popular place, humming with hundreds of diners. The two large bars buzz, especially on weekend late nights, with scads of suburban youth partaking of the mating ritual.

Tower Oaks’ menu is similar to most of the Clyde’s restaurants — a varied menu of well prepared American food. There are few surprises and few disappointments. Beef may be the highlight.

Clyde’s hamburgers are perhaps the best in Washington, and Tower Oaks continues the tradition. The sandwich of two petite filet steaks on English muffins and topped with an excellent bearnaise sauce, a mainstay at Clyde’s restaurants, is equally good at Tower Oaks. It comes with french fries (which could be hotter and crisper) and a melange of sauteed onions and unnecessary mushrooms.

Tower Oaks changes the steak monthly. Currently a porterhouse on the bone, 20 ounces of first-rate meat, is the cut of the month. It’s wonderful, tender and flavorful, cooked exactly as ordered, flavored with a touch of rosemary and served with string beans and mashed potatoes.

Brisket is served with mashed potatoes and small chunks of carrots with a sweet undertone. Unfortunately, the brisket was tough, perhaps sliced too thickly or not cooked slowly and long enough.

Tower Oaks continues the monthly specials of Clyde’s in the city. Earlier in the fall it was fresh, moist Alaska Copper River salmon. This month it is diver scallops served with sweet-potato gnocchi and a saute of various mushrooms and onions. The scallops had been cut into smaller pieces but were excellent, as were the vegetables. The gnocchi, alas, were small pieces of leaden dough.

The choices of entrees are varied and interesting — everything from Italian sausage and peppers or ravioli to grilled calf’s liver, grilled swordfish, trout, herb-roasted chicken and lump crab cakes (also available as a sandwich), always a fine staple at the Clyde’s restaurants.

First courses offer good choices: excellent clams casino, fresh, moist and juicy and topped with a small piece of bacon; tender chicken fingers with a subtle peanut dipping sauce; a delicious spinach and Gorgonzola salad; a seared tuna “martini”; and an oyster menu of fresh-shucked oysters or combinations of shellfish, ranging in price from $10 for half a dozen oysters to $49 for a dozen each of oysters and clams and 10 shrimps.

French bread (not sourdough) and whipped butter are fresh and good, and the bread plate sometimes comes with small chunks of different cheeses. Nor are desserts to be neglected. They include a fine carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and a tangy apple crisp with oats in the topping, served with vanilla ice cream.

Tower Oaks’ wine list offers some good value in several choices of both reds and whites. Service is excellent; the young staff is pleasant and helpful and waiters impress guests with their prowess in holding six or even seven full plates on an outstretched left arm.

Tower Oaks offers value for money, like other Clyde’s restaurants, but in this case, it’s worth driving out to Rockville just to see the stunning restaurant itself.

RESTAURANT: Tower Oaks Lodge, 2 Preserve Parkway, 301/294-0200

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; brunch 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday; dinner 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and until 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters, $4 to $9; main courses, $9 to $16 (lunch), $12 to $23 (dinner); sandwiches, $7.25 to $12; desserts, $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Ample free parking and complimentary valet parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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