- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sou’Wester has replaced Cafe MoZu in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, but the sou’wester that has blown through the hotel’s casual dining room is hardly a storm.

Does an ill wind really blow no good? It has left several examples of good cooking, but other dishes would best be gone with the wind.

The restaurant, always a casual and pleasant, airy place with a view of the Potomac River and the Washington Marina, is not much changed except for the basket chandeliers, the pink-rimmed china, red-shirted waiters and little metal pails of oranges or lemons gracing the tables.

Nothing connects what comes out of the kitchen to America’s Southwest, but the restaurant’s location is, after all, in Southwest Washington. What the wind blows in here comes mainly from the South (think corn bread and hush puppies) and from the Chesapeake Bay (crab and oysters).

Service, even on a not-very-busy midweek night, seems confused; waiters mill about but are slow to take orders. When they do appear table-side, they’re attentive, friendly and knowledgeable.

Dinner on a recent evening began well with a salad of red and golden beets sliced in thin rounds and topped with sliced onions. The vinaigrette dressing is subtle and delicate, just right for the perfectly cooked beets. Very nice.

Equally successful are the pan-fried oysters in an excellent smoked pepper aioli. The six small oysters are presented in their shells on a bed of rock salt that looks like ice, studded with spices such as star anise and capers. They remain fresh and juicy in their batter coats, and the sauce adds a delicious, tangy touch. What remains of the sauce is a perfect dip for the little dinner rolls that come in a basket with crumbly corn bread and biscuits.

The list of cold and hot appetizers includes several intriguing dishes, such as shoat rillettes with pickled green tomatoes, sauteed pork belly with pickled watermelon rind, a lamb-and-rye-berry soup, and a dish of cheese grits topped with a poached egg and crowned in turn with sweetbreads.

Entrees are not so successful. Corned-beef short ribs are an interesting idea, but they fail. What comes to the table is a slab of dry corned beef lacking even the suggestion of the rich succulence of traditional beef short ribs. The horseradish soubise accompanying the corned beef is a mild white sauce that withers against the strong flavor of corned beef.

Nor does the combination of “porgie crab imperial” work well. The porgie filet and the crab do not a happy marriage make. The porgie was a dry, uninteresting filet served atop the crab, which was not the classic crab imperial. Rather than a rich dish of lump crabmeat with a little binder and topped with Parmesan cheese or bread crumbs, the Sou’Wester version is more filler than crab, flaked rather than lump, and containing tiny bits of crunchy vegetables. It had not been properly browned. The flavor was good despite the near-liquid consistency and the unattractive porgie filet. The dish is served without sides or even a sprig of parsley.

More of the Chesapeake is apparent in the perch, rockfish or blackened bluefish, while from the South come fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, and a braised rabbit leg.

A Southern specialty that turned out to be delicious are the hush puppies served with honey butter. The crunchy, deep-fried balls would hush any puppy. Other side dishes that evoke happy memories of decades past include a Waldorf salad and baked beans.

Banana cream pie with a topping of whipped cream makes a lovely dessert. Alas, it was ruined for us when we passed the kitchen after dinner and saw one of the chefs dip his ungloved finger into a plated slice of the pie, lick his finger and return the finger to the pie for a second taste. Not very appetizing.

The lunch menu includes several of the same dishes as at dinner, similarly priced. The lunch menu further includes a number of sandwiches, such as grilled peanut butter and jelly, a pork-jowl BLT, and fried chicken sausage. The beautiful view from the tall windows is an added attraction, day or night.

RESTAURANT: Sou’Wester, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, 202/787-6040.

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

PRICES: Appetizers $7 to $14; entrees $13 to $26; desserts $5

PARKING: Validated valet parking $7 for lunch and dinner

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: L’Enfant Plaza

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