By Albert Eisele - 02/14/08 05:27 PM EST
Two years after ending a 24-year run on Capitol Hill, LaColline has found a new lease on life in the northern Virginia suburbs. Only it’s not the French word for “The Hill” any more. The former French brasserie has been resurrected as Ocean M, a sleek seafood-oriented restaurant located in the middle of McLean’s ill-defined downtown, not far from another recent Capitol Hill émigré, Le Mistral.
Gone is the panoramic view of the Capitol and Union Station, and regulars from Congress and the next-door offices of C-SPAN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC have been replaced by less visible faces, although former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) stopped by to say hello at dinner the other night and we chatted about my stint as a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma last fall. Also absent are the parking problems and labor union pickets that stopped Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other Democrats from holding fundraisers there for the past 12 years.
In their place is an inviting 90-seat dining room and separate bar area located on the second floor of an office and retail complex just off Old Dominion Road. And still greeting and seating guests is owner Paul Zucconi, who’s probably met more members of Congress than anybody in town, while the kitchen is manned by two veteran chefs from LaColline, Roger Wiles and Jose Galeas.
In fact, it was Wiles who persuaded the 57-year-old Zucconi to open another restaurant after LaColline closed its doors in February 2006. “He was working at the Georgetown Club and called me and pushed me to get back in the restaurant business,” said Zucconi, who was working as a restaurant consultant.
He scouted several locations before settling on the McLean space previously occupied by Amerigo — and before that, Il Borgo — and launched Ocean M with little fanfare last September. Wiles, who took over LaColline’s kitchen after renowned chef Robert Greault retired in 2001, and Galeas, who had been at LaColline for 23 years and was working at Le Mistral, only a few blocks away, quickly agreed to rejoin Zucconi as co-owners.
The décor at Ocean M — the M is for McLean — reinforces its nautical theme. The walls are painted in soothing Martha Stewart light blue, and the soft lighting and candlelit tables provide a romantic mood at dinner. The noise level is low, even when the restaurant and bar, which fills one end of the room, are nearly filled. Parking is free and no problem, with a spacious underground lot and another just off the main entrance. And there’s a pianist who plays on Friday and Saturday nights.
But it’s the food that the Wiles-Galeas kitchen turns out that makes one glad Zucconi and his partners are back in business. Two recent dinners and a lunch convinced me that neither has lost his touch. You can’t go wrong with any of the appetizers — priced the same at lunch and dinner — especially the sensuous risotto with wild mushrooms or the steamed mussels with white wine and shallots (both $8.50) or the pheasant terrine, served with a compote of stewed grapes ($9). Delicious crusty bread from D.C.’s Lyon Bakery pairs perfectly with the latter two.
But there’s another appetizer that outshines all the others. It’s wild mushrooms bathed in a rich cabernet sauvignon sauce and enclosed in a pastry shell that’s shaped like a Japanese bento box, complete with pastry lid ($8.50). It’s equal to the best I’ve tasted, served at La Cote D’or on Lee Highway in Arlington, whose chef-owner Raymond Campet also once had a restaurant on Capitol Hill, LaBrasserie.
The dinner menu leaves no doubt that Ocean M’s real focus is seafood. Nine of the 11 appetizers, including oysters served three different ways, and eight of the 11 entrees come from King Neptune’s locker. My wife and I sampled four of the latter, including crab cakes with lobster sauce ($25); bouillabaisse studded with lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, monkfish, rockfish and snapper ($28); sea scallops in a garlic, tomato and beurre blanc sauce ($24) and a sensational fricassee of scallops, shrimp and lobster in vermouth cream with rice pilaf ($26). All were memorable dishes any chef could be proud of, especially the latter.
The red meat crowd can choose among calf’s liver and bacon ($18), New York strip steak ($32) or roast rack of lamb ($35). Obviously, rising food costs have bumped up the prices at LaColline, where nothing on the menu exceeded $24.50 except for the $30.95 Dover sole, which, at $38, is the costliest item on Ocean M’s menu. Still, Zucconi has made every effort to keep his prices as low as possible, and does so with an “On the Fly” lunch menu that offers seven choices, from Chesapeake Fisherman’s Pie to beef tenderloin tips in pastry shells, all for $10. There’s a nicely balanced list of wines by the glass and bottle as well, including one of my favorites, the Sonoma Cutrer Russian Ranches from California’s Sonoma County ($40).
Zucconi concedes that the first three months were slow going, but said he’s already come close to achieving his goal of serving 50 lunches and 90 dinners daily in January — the restaurant serves dinner only on Saturday and is closed on Sunday. He also noted that people in the suburbs eat later than those on the Hill, especially at lunch.
Ocean M is located at 1381 Beverly Road, McLean, VA. 703-734-3474. www.oceanm.net. Lunch served 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri. Dinner served 5:30-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Closed Sunday.Lunch entrees $14-$38; "On the Fly" lunch, $10; dinner entrees, $21-$38.