Capitol cuisine

An age-old cultural debate is raging this year in the hallowed halls of the House, one with sweeping consequences for the entire Capitol community: Can cafeteria food taste good and be good for you?

The makeover bestowed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on House-side dining services has played out much like the opening of a hot new restaurant. The first few weeks brought raves and complaints alike as Hill denizens took in the immense new menu, but by now most are lining up for lunch with the disinterested gazes of regular customers.

Just as any hyped new hotspot tends to have a surprising number of weaknesses, the modernized House cuisine gives a disappointing answer to the ultimate foodie debate. No, cafeteria food cannot truly be both tasty and nutritious — but the Capitol complex can give you one or the other.

Plate for plate, the best locale in the House culinary universe remains the Longworth Cafeteria. There, the snow-white salad bar eclipses any of New York City’s fancy mix-your-own joints with a dizzying array of fresh options. Even the biggest baby spinach skeptics will learn to love salads they can top with edamame, kalamata olives, pillowy fresh mozzarella or a delicious peppered skirt steak.

The “panzanella salad” window, just steps from the salad bar, may look like a tempting alternative. But the only aspect of the panzanella recipe that resembles its authentic Tuscan cousin appears to have been seriously misconstrued.

A traditional panzanella calls for pieces of stale bread that absorb the briny caper flavor of the dressing. But the Longworth Cafeteria slaps a stale and useless chunk of plain Italian bread beneath the salad, calling it “focaccia.”

The main courses on hand at Longworth, unfortunately, are hit-and-miss. While anything roasted or grilled is a good bet, heavier dishes such as masala-rubbed lamb and jerk chicken have the dull tang of a cheap ethnic meal that leaves you worried about food poisoning. Any of the hot dishes, moreover, can dry out while awaiting purchase.

The grill and barbecue windows are more reliably enjoyable, as are the fried staples that the Rayburn Cafeteria still offers. Ordering the same chicken fingers that pleased the crowds in the previous era of congressional dining may seem to violate Pelosi’s goal of “Greening the Capitol,” but at least the newfangled grease contains no trans-fats.

In Longworth as well as Rayburn, healthful eaters have respectable packaged sandwiches and salads to choose from. Of course, the old mantra still applies: Cafeteria food cannot be both nutritious and delicious.

Poached salmon on pumpernickel bread with dill and yogurt drew me to the register, but when I bit into the sandwich, the only condiment on the fish was a weak, tasteless attempt at salsa. The bland marinated shrimp and white bean salad betrayed no proof of marination, and the overly peppered beef salad would have been better with the same smoky steak that rules the salad bar.

In the Rayburn basement, the hand-crafted salads almost reach the heights of Longworth, particularly the grilled asparagus spiked with tangy bacon and the luxuriously textured beets with goat cheese.

The so-called “action station” varies in quality depending on the day. Rare and juicy sustainable seafood makes the grade, but the taqueria tries too hard to beat Chipotle at the volume game. Slapping huge portions of fresh toppings on stewed beef reminiscent of sixth-grade mystery meat does not make for a pleasant afternoon following lunch.

The sleeper hits in all of the new House dining outposts are desserts and snacks. The convenience store down the hall from the Longworth Cafeteria now stocks perfect Newman’s Own popcorn, classy nutrition bars and addictive dark chocolate-covered blueberries. The ice cream shop in the building scoops decadent treats from Gifford’s, the best frozen-dessert company in the region.

Cookies on the House side have (unfortunately for calorie-watchers) become a pleasure, whether crunchy peanut butter or a double chocolate that melts on the tongue. For a quick, satisfying breakfast, low-fat yogurt parfaits and feathery smoothies redolent of blueberries are also downright irresistible.

But no restaurant can be judged on cuisine alone. Service in the House remains largely top-notch thanks to friendly cooks and cashiers who manage hordes of Capitol visitors without losing their cool. When I received the wrong sauce on one dish, my server reassured those waiting in line and quickly re-mixed a new lunch from scratch.

On the ambience front, more grumbling has erupted over the banishment of traditional plastic utensils in favor of biodegradable implements. The spoons do have an oddly fuzzy texture, but rumors that they wilt in hot drinks are decidedly untrue.

Still, any diner whose lunchtime experience hinges on the mouth-feel of a disposable fork probably already preferred the mushy mashed potatoes that used to slide onto House plates. Even if your adventures with Pelosi’s gussied-up menus fall short, the pleasure of an environmentally responsible meal makes up for the less-than-perfect execution of gourmet concepts.

If anyone has trouble learning to love the new cafeterias, I would suggest the Senate, where scary steam trays are bound to remind you that the grass is always greener on the other side of the Capitol.