- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Magnolia blossoms, surrounded by their waxy green leaves, line the staircase down to Vidalia, Jeff and Sallie Buben’s newly renovated restaurant at 1990 M St. NW. The blossoms are not real, but it’s hard to tell. The magnolia blossom is a symbol of the South, and the Southern accents in Mr. Buben’s fine dishes are stronger than ever.

The restaurant’s new look, designed by Washington’s numero uno team of Adamstein and Demetriou, is sleek and muted. Beige, white and brown tones dominate. A stunning glass dividing wall, which looks to be of ice or rain, separates the dining room from the large bar.

There’s ample seating at the bar, accommodating smokers, but the glass wall and good ventilation protect everyone else. Diners at the two or three tables in the main dining room with their backs against the glass wall might wish for an extension of the wall along a right angle to insulate them from the sight of the kitchen as waiters rush through the wide swinging doors and guests hurry along to and from the restrooms.

What was once the entrance has become a small dining room, which can be incorporated into the main dining area or transformed into a private room. Decorative vases on shelves along the wall of a raised section at the back of the dining room provide the only splashes of color in the restaurant.

The space doesn’t feel like a basement; it’s an elegant setting for elegant meals, but something is missing. Perhaps it’s the absence of color, of flowers, of a touch of warmth. Like the restaurant itself, the service is smooth and cool: waiters, attentive when at your table, glide about their appointed tasks without an eye for the unexpected.

Dinner (and lunch too) begins with a lovely Shaker-style basket filled with delicious bread and rolls: corn bread, onion focaccia and yeasty dinner rolls. Fresh and still warm, the bread is served with a delicious sweet onion marmalade. Be careful: A hungry diner tends to consume everything in the basket before a morsel of food is ordered.

The appetizers are outstanding. The onion soup is made with a rich duck broth, and the splendid corn chowder is slightly sweet but creamy and gently spiced with a smoky red pepper coulis decorating the surface. The corn soup is accompanied by a small portion of crab imperial on toast.

Soused shrimp consists of a good-sized portion of marinated jumbos, somewhat overcooked, served on excellent corn bread in a lightly spicy, rich sauce.

It’s a pleasure to see sweetbreads back on a menu, both as an appetizer and an entree. In Vidalia’s appetizer rissole version, half a dozen small pieces are battered and deep-fried. The batter is a little too heavy for the delicacy of the sweetbreads, but the dish is nevertheless very good. The accompanying mixture of pearl barley, chopped oven-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, ham and a little frisee lettuce is outstanding, a wonderful merging of disparate elements that combine perfectly as sophisticated Southern. Sweetbreads are available as a main course, pan-roasted with a crisp lobster roll.

A lighter starter is the Shady Lane salad, a refreshing combination of bibb lettuce, slivers of candied ham, capers and hard-boiled egg in a nicely acidic verjus vinaigrette.

Main courses show the same thoughtful originality in ingredients. A thick pan-fried pork chop is served with a side of a delicious little sweet potato souffle, topped with a dollop of marshmallow cream. It’s not airy enough to really be a souffle and is more akin to a pudding, and it’s perfect with the pork. Equally delicious are the turnip greens, rich with the flavor of maple, pork juice and crisp bits of pecans. The pork, ordered well done in the Southern manner, was too tough to cut, even with a sharp steak knife. The management quickly took the dish off the tab, even though the vegetables had been consumed with gusto. (Our waiter confided later that he had urged the chef to brine the chop in future, in sugar and salt water, “and then the pork will be tender no matter how you cook it.”)

A plate-sized potato pancake is an unusual dinner entree. The pancake, made of fried shredded potatoes, similar to Swiss roesti, is topped with sauteed, overly sweet apples. (The menu refers to apple-onion chutney, but the apples on my pancake had no connection to a chutney.) The shallot cream surrounding the pancake had dried before the plate was served. Good as the potatoes are, it’s a curious dish, better served as a brunch offering than a main course in the evening. And $19 is dear for a pancake, even a big one.

Crab cakes make a main course at lunch (three good-sized cakes) and start an evening meal (two smaller cakes). These are excellent — first-quality fresh crab and virtually no binder.

At lunchtime, the kitchen prepares such classic dishes as shrimp and grits (also available in the evening), cornmeal-crusted fried catfish with andouille sausage, chicken and dumplings and rabbit burgoo (stew). Luncheon sandwiches include barbecued pork (not too tough to cut), a hamburger with blue cheese and a traditional oyster-and-shrimp po’ boy. The po’ boy cannot be authentic because it’s served on a hard roll rather than the soft French bread always used in New Orleans.

The spicy remoulade sauce was excellent, but the oysters, rolled in the same breading as the sweetbreads, were oversalted and overwhelmed by the breading. The shrimp were good, but again overcooked. The sandwich had too much bread for the filling and disappointed. The accompanying cabbage slaw was refreshing, based on vinegar rather than mayonnaise.

Among the desserts, be sure to try the coconut cake. It’s a marvel — a creamy little round cake, rolled in toasted coconut and sitting on a paper-thin circle of fresh, ripe pineapple. The cake is surrounded by a tiny dice of the same juicy pineapple and surmounted by a scoop of ice cream, which, in turn, is decorated with a space-age, diamond-shaped thin, crunchy cookie. It’s an irresistible concoction.

It’s a pleasure to be back in the Bubens’ Vidalia, supping on the chef’s inspirations in new surroundings. Bon appetit.

RESTAURANT: Vidalia, 1990 M Street NW 202/659-1990

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $7.50 to $9.25 (lunch), $9.50 to $13(dinner); entrees $9.75 to $15 (lunch), $19 to $28 (dinner)

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking; $5 dinner valet parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible (via separate entrance, west of the main entrance)

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