Cafe Promenade


Renaissance Mayflower Hotel
1127 Connecticut Ave. N.W.
(202) 347-CAFE

The hordes of reporters and television crews that waited outside the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel for a glimpse of Monica Lewinsky are gone now, and the restaurant where she took some of her meals while waiting to be videotaped for the impeachment trial is back to normal.

Rating:

Food: 7 Ambiance: 6
Service: 7 Price/Value: 6

And maybe that's part of the problem with the Cafe Promenade, which is Washington's answer to the Palm Court in New York's Plaza Hotel. Although the food and service are perfectly adequate, and the setting one of the loveliest in town, there's not much exciting or memorable about this elegant restaurant, even if you're seated next to Jeff Greenfield and Frank Sesno of CNN, as we were one night.

HOURS: Breakfast, 6-11 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; dinner, 5-11 p.m., seven days a week. Friday seafood buffet, 6-10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

PRICES: Lunch: appetizers, $ 4.75-$ 9.25; entrees, $ 9.50-$ 17.75; dinner: appetizers, $ 4.75-$ 11.00; entrees $ 13.25-$ 23.50. Friday seafood buffet and Sunday brunch, $ 35 per person.

At least that was my initial impression after a recent lunch and dinner in the main dining room of the historic hotel that has seen more than its share of celebrities since it opened in 1925. The food, prepared by Italian-born and French-trained Chef Agostino Buggio, seemed uninspired, and the service was rather impersonal, as befits a hotel that does some $ 16 million a year in food and beverage business, all under the direction of Executive Chef Norman Wade.

But I came away with a more favorable impression after I payed a third visit with my daughter to the Cafe Promenade Sunday night, which is why you should always have at least three meals before reviewing any restaurant.

True, the service was still a bit leisurely, despite the ministrations of genial Maitre d'Francois Vezie, a veteran of the Hay Adams and Madison Hotel dining rooms. And the ambiance was marred by the parade of people who still move through the hotel's main corridor, many of whom stop to peruse the menu before deciding if they want to eat there. Finally, the guitarist who usually serenades dinner guests from a Romeo and Juliet balcony had the night off, leaving an eerie silence in his place.

However, the food was noticeably better, and the impersonal tone of the place softened by the presence of several dozen members of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and their families, who are holding their annual meeting at the Renaissance Mayflower this week.

Indeed, the wheelchair-bound veterans, who will testify before Congress Thursday on behalf of their 18,000-member organization, brought a friendlier, more informal spirit to the restaurant. And two of the Paralyzed Veterans, National Director Patrick Marron of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Vice President Anthony Mark of Salem, Ore., assured me that they consider the food first-rate, based on regular visits in the past. After the meal I and my daughter enjoyed, I'd have to agree.

I'd been disappointed, on a previous visit, with the fish courses my two guests and I ordered, so I counseled meat dishes this time. Fortifying ourselves with a glass of the Robert Mondavi merlot ($ 7.25), we started with the mesclun salad ($ 5.50) and the smoked salmon with potato pancake, mascarpone cheese and caviar (8.75). Mesclun salad is mesclun salad, even with herbed olive oil balsam vinaigrette, but the translucent salmon slices, topped with the sweetish mascarpone cheese and salty caviar, were exquisite.

Our entrees were no less satisfying. My daughter's sliced duck ($ 19.50) with asparagus was cooked to perfection, while my Black Angus steak, a grilled sirloin with twice-baked potato, wilted spinach and portobello mushroom sauce couldn't have been better. They made up for the Maryland crabcakes I had last month ($ 18.75), when the lump crabmeat was overpowered by taste-deficient filler, and the seafood mixed grill of swordfish, tuna and salmon ($ 20.25) was only a mixed success.

The swordfish was fine, fresh and juicy and sweet as only good swordfish can be. But the filet of Ahi tuna had an unpleasantly fishy taste while the salmon was overcooked. And my other guest's salmon with crabmeat imperial ($ 18.50) was unexceptional, even with the tangy lime ginger sauce that accompanied it.

We fared better on each visit with our desserts, all of which are priced at a reasonable $ 5. On one occasion, we had hazelnut tiramisu, double chocolate cake and fresh fruit tart, all of which were also excellent. On Sunday, I ordered the pear creme brulee and my daughter the apple cinnamon bread pudding. Again, both were flawless.

Bottom line, the flagship restaurant of one of Washington's grande dame hotels is curiously deficient in panache, lacking the grandeur of the Willard Room at the Willard Intercontinental, the sophisticated grace of the Hay Adams' LaFayette Dining Room, or the luxury of the Four Season's "Seasons" restaurant.

Maybe Monica will give the Cafe Promenade a plug in her Barbara Walters interview tonight, but even if she doesn't, it gets the Paralyzed Veterans' vote, and my qualified endorsement.