- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Hotel dining rooms are always caught in a dilemma: Should the chef provide the bland cooking that will satisfy tastes from everywhere, children and adults alike, or should the hotel dining room be an independent, yet attached, restaurant, such as Michel Richard’s Citronelle in the Latham Hotel or 15 RIA in the Washington Terrace Hotel?

There’s another option, which the Landmark restaurant in the Melrose Hotel (formerly the Wyndham) on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 24th and 25th streets, has mastered. The menu, both at lunch and dinner, is straightforward and uncomplicated, but dishes are prepared with good ingredients. They tend to be classic American dishes, often with an unusual twist that will interest a diner looking for innovation yet satisfy the conservative customer.

For example, the lunch menu opens with a “lemonade of the day,” a mixture of traditional lemon juice with another fresh fruit juice, such as watermelon. Gazpacho also has a watermelon base for a light summer soup.

Now that summer is over, the Landmark makes a roasted pumpkin soup laced with apples and maple syrup. It’s slightly frothy, rich and sweet, with a crunchy dusting of chopped walnuts. Charred tomato soup actually tastes of roasted tomatoes; it is neither rich nor heavy, but pleasantly satisfactory. The slice of corn bread that comes with the soup, however, lacks freshness and moisture, unlike the restaurant’s fresh crusty country bread.

Lunch or dinner could start with a version of a shrimp cocktail with a horseradish mousse, crispy fried calamari (tender and good but with too much cornmeal batter), Caesar salad (which incorporates nontraditional tomato confit and olive tapenade) or a fresh bibb lettuce salad with blue cheese, cherry tomatoes and a sliver or two of unpeeled pear. All good and pretty standard.

In the evening, starters become more interesting, including duck quesadillas with caramelized onions, cheese and roasted apples; foie gras; and delicious crabmeat crepes in a rich sherry cream sauce. Two light, warm, appropriately thin pancakes are filled with crab and sweet corn. The combination is inspired; it’s a rich and filling appetizer, which together with a salad could make a light meal.

The dinner menu includes three pastas — veal lasagna, shrimp angel hair, and macaroni and cheese, which incorporates ham, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and a bit of truffle oil. (This is not your grandma’s mac and cheese.)

The half-dozen main courses are divided evenly between fish and meat. A classic filet Rossini is served topped with foie gras (duck or goose liver), house-made fried potatoes and French beans. Chicken pot pie is a blend of braised chicken, corn, potatoes and carrots in pastry. The third meat dish is a roasted half chicken in a lemon-honey glaze. The skin is dark and crisp, the meat still moist and the flavor excellent. The accompanying broccoli rabe, tiny onions and roasted potatoes are equally delicious.

Fish dishes include the ubiquitous seared salmon. An excellent trout meuniere in a brown butter sauce is garnished with whole hazelnuts (a nice alternative to the usual almonds), a handful of fresh grapefruit segments and some thin slices of fennel.

The third fish dish is a witty fish and chips, consisting of seared crab cakes served with house-made slaw and shoestring potatoes.

For lunch, the kitchen prepares half a dozen dishes that can be served either as sandwiches or salads. Smoked turkey, grilled chicken Caesar, grilled portobello mushroom and pecan-fried chicken are each prepared with a variety of condiments and accompaniments, such as bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, roasted peppers, avocado and so forth. The salad version is fine, and portions are ample. In addition, the lunch menu includes a hamburger and a roast beef sandwich.

Among traditional desserts (sorbets, cheesecake, creme brulee) are warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and also an unusual warm croissant bread pudding. The latter is a mound of firm pudding with none of the creaminess expected, but served with a delicious roasted banana, rum raisin ice cream and whipped cream. The ensemble is a successful combination of flavors — a large portion easily shared by two.

On Sundays, the Landmark serves a plated brunch for a fixed price of $25, which includes a choice of one of 10 each of starters and main courses and a choice of five desserts. Most of the dishes, with the exception of pancakes and eggs, are the same as those on the regular lunch and dinner menus. Drinks are extra.

Across the hall from the restaurant stands the hotel’s bar, the Library, which serves sandwiches as well as drinks from opening (usually at 2 p.m.) until closing time around midnight. The full restaurant menu is available on request.

The restaurant has an adequate, albeit somewhat dear, wine list, with an unidentified house wine by the glass and four or five vintage reds and whites available by the glass.

The kitchen can be quite slow in sending out orders, and service sometimes takes longer than it should. Nevertheless, the eagerness to please and courtesy expressed by everyone from the maitre d’ down to the waiters and busboy makes up for this weakness.

The Landmark does not offer haute cuisine, but the food is good, with touches of individuality. James Balster, the new executive chef, is serious about cooking. He plans a new fall menu shortly, encompassing less fruit and more seafood and game.

RESTAURANT: The Landmark in the Melrose Hotel, 2430 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/955-6400.

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. daily; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

PRICES: Starters $5 to $15 (lunch and dinner); entrees $15 to $19 (lunch), $15 to $29 (dinner); desserts $6

CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards

PARKING: Street parking, metered until 6:30 p.m.; complimentary dinner valet parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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