Mood Indigo: Charleston on the Potomac

It was the perfect way to celebrate Father’s Day, even if it was a day early. The food conjured memories of my childhood, the service was charming, the price was right and the outdoor setting on the Potomac waterfront was worthy of a picture postcard. Sure, the jet airplanes screaming overhead out of Reagan National made conversation impossible from time to time, two of the wines I ordered weren’t available and the late afternoon sun beating down on us made it uncomfortably warm.

But the panoramic view of the Capitol and Washington Monument as sailboats skimmed over the Potomac was sensational, and everyone, including members of a gala wedding party, appeared to be enjoying themselves as much as we were. I’m talking about Indigo Landing, where my wife and I and our older daughter prematurely celebrated Father’s Day on Saturday.

I don’t know why I’d overlooked this unique restaurant, which I’ve driven by — and flown over — countless times. Maybe it’s because I heard little good about it when it was known as Potowmack Landing. Or maybe because it’s located on Daingerfield Island, and just didn’t get no respect.

But that was before the Star Restaurant Group (the company behind Zola and the now-closed Red Sage) and Guest Services Inc. took it over in April 2006, sprucing it up nicely inside and out with soft blue-green and pale yellow walls, glass picture windows, and a bar that opens onto an outdoor patio of tables with umbrellas under leafy trees.

More importantly, the owners hired Executive Chef Bryan Moscatello to turn their restaurant into a northern outpost of Southern low-country cooking. And what cooking it is — just like my late mother, who grew up on the South Carolina seacoast, described it to me. (I was probably the only kid in southern Minnesota who knew what grits tasted like, a knowledge that served me well in the Carter administration.)

Start, as we did, with a cup of the classic she-crab soup, a creamy concoction of sherry-spiked crab soup served with a crunchy swizzle stick filled with Japanese flying fish roe. Or the baked oysters Charleston, four fat bivalves on a bed of creamed Frogmore shrimp and spinach. Or an entrée-size appetizer — a jumbo lump crab cake that more than lived up to its name, adorned with frisée-celery leaf salad and bathed in pink pimento aioli. (Best to forget about counting calories or worrying about clogged arteries here.)

Appetizers arrive after you’ve emptied the contents of the bread basket, a lime-green colander filled with corn muffins, crisp flatbreads imbedded with bits of country ham, and warm soft yeast rolls, made even more irresistible by the wheel of butter surrounded by honey that comes with it. And that is followed by a lovely amuse-bouche of seafood pâté.

Meanwhile, you can admire the view as the sun sets on the other side of the George Washington Parkway — the view after dark is almost magical — and you savor one of the special drinks from the horseshoe-shaped bar, where I spotted Bill Pickle,
the recently retired Senate sergeant at arms, with his brother and a friend.

I ordered a “Charleston Bog,” a kind of alcoholic fruit salad made with Maker’s Mark bourbon with honey, smashed raspberries, crushed limes and torn mint. My daughter tried the “Pawley’s Island,” named after the island where my mother went as a child with her parents. Concocted of Citron vodka, Chambord liqueur, citrus froth and splashes of orange juice and 7-Up, it was a bit too sweet for her taste, or mine.

But none of us could find any fault with our entrees, which are where Moscatello, a New Jersey native who was named one of the 10 best chefs in the country by Food and Wine magazine three years ago, really shows his Southern-accented stuff.
The old standby of shrimp and grits is a delicious combination of grilled shrimp on yellow corn cheese grits with bacon, leek, oyster mushrooms and sage jus, while the grilled ruby trout, which looks exactly like salmon but doesn’t taste like it, was nicely paired with sweet corn, black-eyed peas and chunks of smoked sausage. And my roast halibut was perfectly complemented by its cabbage, smoked bacon and shrimp potsticker partners.

 The desserts are no less impressive, even though you may not be as tempted after all the rich food you’ve just consumed. But we did try the Raspberry Fool, a luscious hunk of angel food cake smothered in macerated raspberries with white-chocolate garnish. I barely resisted ordering the coconut cake donuts with caramel anglaise for dipping when I saw them being devoured at a nearby table.

For big eaters, Indigo Landing offers a low-country champagne brunch on Sunday that features a full range of the menu and more.

Service, including a warm welcome at the reception desk, is one of the restaurant’s strong points. Natalie, our lovely young waitress, was from Moldova, one of some 40 Moldovan seasonal workers employed by the restaurant, I later learned. (Our car was parked by a young woman from Brazil, and the bartender is German.)

You’ll know you’re in a special place as soon as you turn off the George Washington Parkway into the long driveway that leads to the restaurant. It’s surrounded on two sides by a forest of masts of the hundreds of sailboats moored in the marina, as well as a forest of real trees. If it weren’t for the airplanes overhead and the view of the low-lying D.C. skyline, you’d swear you were in Lindsey Graham-land.

Indigo Landing is offering guests a front-row view of the Fourth of July fireworks on the Mall with two seatings. The first is at 5 p.m. — $50 for adults, $25 for children, who can watch the fireworks from the lawn — and the second at 7 p.m., $75 for adults and $37.50 for children, who can watch from their table.