- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Gone is the elegant Melrose in the Park Hyatt Hotel at the corner of 24th and M streets Northwest, where Brian McBride’s sophisticated haute cuisine satisfied cosmopolitan appetites. Now we have Blue Duck Tavern, where Mr. McBride’s sophisticated interpretations of local products from the field, farm and forest will please cosmopolitan appetites.

The Park Hyatt has redesigned the restaurant. Under the hand of Tony Chi, the Blue Duck has retained its elegance without the formality of Melrose. The look is contemporary and open — open kitchen with a wood-burning oven, open spaces for dining and drinking and a menu designed for sharing.

Tavern-style chairs (comfortable) and tables, a bearable noise level and minimalist decor leave the eye to concentrate on the kitchen, decorated with jars of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, huge baskets of ripe tomatoes and a bevy of cooks intent on their tasks. Cooking can be seen, but not sniffed, thanks to an excellent exhaust system.

Mr. McBride has not lost his touch. During the renovations, he traveled the world in search of ideas from Tokyo, Singapore and Zurich. The emphasis in the new Blue Duck Tavern is on fresh ingredients provided by local purveyors and artisans; the menu identifies the source of the meat, fish and produce.

A recent dinner began with a gift from the chef — mild, tender, air-cured bresaiola, the beef version of prosciutto. The Boston lettuce salad from the Tuscarora co-op is simple in perfection, sprinkled with hazelnuts and lightly dressed with a mustard vinaigrette. Just the ticket for a summer?s evening.

It’s always difficult to choose favorites, but the crab cakes, made with lump crabmeat and nary a bit of hidden shell, are outstanding. There seems to be no binder in the crab cake, only sweet crabmeat. Served with a creamy remoulade, the dish can be ordered as an appetizer with one cake or a main course with two.

A second choice would be the large, juicy soft-shell crab, deep-fried and served with an herbed mayonnaise, similar to the remoulade but milder. The crab is crunchily satisfying without the usual grease of deep-frying. It?s served split so it, too, can be shared. Both crab dishes are sensational.

Oysters, clams, marinated sardines and tuna tartare make up the remaining seafood starters, all appropriate tavern fare. Mr. McBride?s version of a marrow bone roasted with herbs and garlic is a treat for aficionados of this rich dish.

Charcuterie, such as a galantine of duck and mushrooms and smoked country pork terrine, are equally fine beginnings to lunch or dinner, their complex flavors a fine contrast to the simplicity of shellfish and salads. The galantine, similar to a pate except that the meat is prepared in chunks and not ground, is served with a cherry compote, adding a bit of sweetness to the galantine, which is studded with tiny slivers of mushrooms and pistachios.

After a string of successes, the baked clams disappointed. The clams are baked with finely chopped bacon, red peppers and garlic, which is a good combination, but our too-large clams were tough and not as fresh as they ought to have been.

The wood-burning stove adds an extra depth of flavor to main courses. A hefty rib-eye steak for two on the bone ($80), almost as tender as a filet, and the roasted duck and chicken are rich, flavorful and satisfying.

Pork chops are often a gamble, but not these roasted thin rib chops, almost as tender as a lover?s kiss. They arrive at the table bathed in their juices and accompanied by a delightful sweet peach simmered in bourbon. The sweet-salt combination works well with the pork.

Regular fish dishes are ‘angry’ Shenandoah trout (so-called because the fish is served with the tail rounded up to the head, giving it a fierce demeanor); line-caught rockfish; halibut served with stewed peppers; a whole roasted sea bream; and prawns with tomatoes and rosemary. Roasted Maine scallops are perfectly cooked and served in a simple olive oil and chive sauce.

Main courses are not accompanied by sides of any kind, but the list of grains, potatoes and vegetables offers excellent choices, from the garlic mashed potatoes to a barbecued casserole of rice beans, and from pickled tomatoes to royal trumpet mushrooms. Double-fried steak fries, destined to become a signature dish, are not to be missed. The season?s vegetables combine zucchini, squash and tomatoes.

A buttermilk cheesecake is a highlight of the desserts. It?s light yet creamy, with the flavor of a New York cheesecake but without the heaviness. The cherry compote goes well with the cheesecake. The warm apple pie — a cross between a pie and a tarte Tatin — is particularly fine with its buttery crust, and the chocolate cake also is a memorable dessert.

The lunch menu closely resembles the one for dinner. Steaks, except for the roasted tavern steak, are absent, and entree salads of salmon or seared rare tuna are added. House-made bratwurst is substituted for the entree pork chop, as well as a breaded veal schnitzel. The bratwurst, sometimes made with pork and sometimes including chicken, is served in a tangy mustard sauce with sauerkraut that has been braised in beer, white wine and mustard seeds. It?s a tavern dish to savor.

The restaurant serves everything in small silver dishes, in the style of northern European restaurants, so that everything can be shared. A welcome touch.

Blue Duck has an international wine list with two pages of recommended wines, almost all from California. A light, dry rose would be a welcome summer addition to the wines by the glass. Service is professional and pleasant, with the wait staff attired in dark suits with pale blue T-shirts.

The restaurant is arranged as several rooms, one flowing into another. Three tables near the bar, each surrounded by a glass partition, enable discreet conversations. The Blue Duck is something to quack about.

RESTAURANT: Blue Duck Tavern, 24th and M streets Northwest; 202/419-6755.

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. daily.

PRICES: For both lunch and dinner: appetizers $8 to $18; main courses $20 to $26; side dishes $7 to $12; desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking; valet parking $7

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Foggy Bottom (Orange and Blue lines)

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