- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

Washington’s suburbs are sprouting all sorts of new restaurants. Finn & Porter — Finn is for fish and Porter stands for porterhouse — is a new sort of hotel restaurant. It serves all three meals but resembles an independent restaurant rather than the usual hotel dining room.

Finn & Porter is attached to — rather than being inside — the Hilton hotel at the Mark Center on Seminary Road in Alexandria west of Interstate 95.

It has a sophistication not usually found in a hotel restaurant.

The restaurant is elegant and attractive, yet retaining informality. A large central bar serves as a sushi bar and a regular bar for television viewing. If you don’t want to sit at the sushi bar and have the TV flickering into your nigiri sushi, you can take your plate to a small marble-topped standing bar and look out over the dining room and the terrace and garden beyond.

The terrace overlooks a pond frequented by Canada geese, which no longer fly home to Canada in the summer. Finn & Porter’s appeal outclasses the Canadian wild.

The sushi is very good, the fish fresh and nicely varied. I had sashimi of wild Alaskan salmon. Superb. The clean, rich taste of the salmon — delicate yet full of fresh flavor, each piece interspersed with a paper-thin slice of lime — makes it a truly memorable starter.

Oysters also are delectable, served with a vinegar dip or a tomato-based cocktail sauce, and there usually are about six different kinds from which to choose. Unfortunately, the crab legs and crayfish had that watery frozen taste, and the shrimp were a mite cold.

As the restaurant’s name promises, starters and main courses offer a good choice of fish and meat. A starter of a Maryland crab cake was excellent, with a lovely buttery crust and no off-putting shell left in the perfectly prepared cake. A larger portion is available on the main-course menu at lunch and dinner.

Soft-shell crabs, also available as an appetizer (a single crab, deep fried) or a main course (two crabs, sauteed), did not turn out quite so well. Serving the crabs both on top of and underneath a hefty melange of zucchini, peppers and tomatoes — the vegetable du jour at lunch and dinner for most dishes — made them mushy. They had been overly breaded and retained none of the crispness of the soft shell. The problem lies primarily in the prevalent fad of piling food on food; had the crabs been served on the plate with the vegetables on the side, they would have been considerably better.

The same problem applies to a main course of pork tenderloin, served with the same vegetable mixture and a large dollop of mashed potatoes. The meat, vegetables and potatoes had to be separated from one another. By the time that was done, the plate looked quite unappetizing. The pork was too good not to be showcased by itself. Perhaps this fad, too, will pass.

Steaks, of course, are a highlight, and they can be delicious. A specialty is the small rib-eye steak — larger in the evening. It’s tender and has a wonderful rich flavor. It, too, is served with the mixed vegetables and red-pepper mashed potatoes. Mashing seems to be the chef’s preferred method of preparing potatoes, although the roasted red potatoes served with alder-plank salmon are delicious.

The alder-plank-roasted salmon is terrific. Just now, while the wild Alaskan salmon is in season, it’s a particular treat. The salmon is cooked in the oven on the plank, then served with a fine bearnaise sauce and the roast potatoes. If you like salmon, it’s not to be missed. When the wild salmon is no longer available, the dish is prepared with farm-raised salmon.

The Danish BLT salad is unusual and witty. A good-sized wedge of iceberg lettuce is served with a large slice each of juicy red and yellow tomatoes. The lettuce is topped with Danish blue cheese and crumbled bacon, the whole dressed in a light, creamy blue cheese dressing. It’s delicious.

Besides the crabs and salmon, the restaurant prepares half a dozen fresh fish, a variety of steaks, lamb chops and chicken.

Substantial sandwiches are available at lunch and in the lounge, as are main-course salads.

Desserts are a mixed treat. There’s a wonderful, rich chocolate cake, but the apple pie is dry and the pastry undercooked. The creme brulee spoons — a half-dozen porcelain soup spoons, each filled with a different flavored creme brulee — are amusing and good, although traditional vanilla still tastes best to me. A “sushi” dessert plate, on which the rice is sweet and the “fish” is made of fruit, with a raspberry dipping sauce in lieu of soy sauce, and white chocolate chopsticks, is fun and original.

The extensive wine list showcases an excellent selection of bottles from around the world and several fine wines by the glass. The best wines are kept in a glass wine cellar between the attractive little private dining room and the main dining room, visible from both rooms.

Service can be a bit slow, but everyone, from the hostesses to the waiters and busboys and girls, is invariably courteous, friendly and eager to please.

The upholstery, woods and discreet candlelight in the evening — sunshine in the daytime — make Finn & Porter a pleasant, friendly place to dine. It misses sometimes, but not often, and everything is frequently first-class.

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