Saturday, February 23, 2008

Laporta's in Alexandria a Major Disappointment

So I decided to take a little vacation close to home, and am staying in Old Town Alexandria for a few days (I live in Silver Spring.) I haven’t spent much time in Old Town, so relied on Open Table to tell me what was available on a Friday night. (Sadly, The Majestic was not available -- I’ve heard lots of good things.) Laporta’s Restaurant was available for a last-minute reservation, however, and since it featured live jazz, I thought it would be an entertaining place to spend the evening, especially as a single diner. Boy was I wrong -- the meal was one disaster after another.

When I arrived, the host seated me in an almost-empty room, where I could barely hear the music. I asked if I could be seated closer to the music, but she told me that all those seats were reserved. (Neither Open Table nor the restaurant’s website said anything about making special kinds of reservations to hear the music, however. I found it rather odd that the dining room and the bar were separated by the kitchen in the middle, so that diners can barely hear the music that is one of the restaurant’s selling points.

Some of the seating is awkwardly placed: I was originally seated at a table next to a window and divider, with the seat placed diagonally from the table in order to fit it in. Rather than eat sideways all night, I asked for another table. I was seated in a corner near some other diners, so at least I could hear their conversation (mostly about politics -- it is the DC area after all), even if I couldn’t hear the music. But I soon realized the chair I sat in was awkwardly located when another diner sat adjacent to me, and we were both boxed in.

The décor is straight out of a strip mall. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you’re in a strip mall. But for a restaurant with $20-$30 entrees, I expected nicer furnishings than low drop ceilings, dirty ventilation fans, industrial carpet, and faux marble tabletops on particle board. And what's with the tired red lanterns from Pier One clearance? There weren't any Asian items on the menu. Check your water glasses before you drink from them: the first one was inexplicably crusty on the outside, and both of them were heavily scratched.

The server recited the specials in a sing-songy voice without really looking at me, doing that eye roll that suggests there’s a list on the ceiling he’s trying to discreetly access. He actually had trouble making much eye contact, and had some lapses in concentration when assisting me. (He tried to excuse one of them by saying that he knew the person who entered the room. She apparently was a regular, although I can’t imagine why.) The night’s specials included rockfish and a pork chop -- there were some others, but they didn't make as much of an impression.

The wine list is in need of a more skilled designer as well as a more skilled sommelier. I’m not sure whether full bottles were available -- I was never offered a list. (Granted, I was a single diner, but could still put away...(oh, never mind. Let‘s just say they should have offered something beyond the crammed-together, hard-to-read, computer-generated list of uninspired selections by the glass.)) I went for a Napa pinot noir (I don‘t remember which one it was, but since it was the only one offered by the glass, it really doesn‘t matter that much). It arrived well above room temperature. Granted, most red wine doesn’t have to be chilled, but it shouldn’t be tepid either, so that it tastes like it came from a counter near the stove instead from a cellar.

For an appetizer, I was choosing between the roasted red pepper and fresh mozzarella, and the mushroom rounds. (Laporta's Dinner Menu) The server said that both were good selections, but pushed me in the direction of the red pepper and mozzarella when I said that I was trying to avoid bread. The appetizer took a while to arrive, even though it just had to be assembled, so the server took my entrée order before it arrived. That was a good thing, I think, since there were long gaps between courses, even though the restaurant was virtually empty on a Friday night. That should have been a sign of what was to come.

When the roasted red pepper and mozzarella arrived, I was initially impressed. Although I thought $8.99 was a little pricy for this appetizer, what would be considered a side salad in many restaurants, with artichoke hearts, olives, and field greens with a balsamic dressing, was included with the pepper and mozzarella. The appetizer had a pleasing mix of flavors and was generously portioned.

The server came back to take my entrée order. I told him I was deciding between the Chicken Envoltine, Pork Schnitzel, and the pork chop special. Once again, his recommendations were pretty much useless -- he again said they were all good without really telling me why. After he described the pork chop special, with a port reduction and fresh berries on top, I decided to go with that one. I also asked for a side of sautéed spinach (misspelled on the menu as sauted spinach), and he said he thought it could be substituted for the vegetables that came with the pork. He was wrong. He came back to say they yelled at him when he asked for the substitution. No apologies, so I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen until the meal arrived with the spinach served separately and the roasted vegetables he initially described were on the plate with the pork chop.

The pork chop was generously portioned (he had said it was 12 ounces), or so it seemed until I tried to cut into it. There was so much fat and gristle that penetrating the meat practically necessitated a chainsaw, or at the very least, a well-sharpened jigsaw. After sawing away at it for a while with my mere steak knife, I extracted what appeared to be an edible piece. Luckily, I was by myself so that after I chewed away for a while, and still found nothing edible, I could discreetly spit it out in a napkin. Yes, it was that bad, and that‘s not even discussing the fact that it was sickeningly sweet. (If I wanted pork candy, I would have stayed in Japan, where I’m sure it’s a delicacy available in a convenience store somewhere.) The server quickly noticed my lack of enthusiasm for the meal (although I suppose I would have had a decent workout by the end.) He asked if I wanted him to take it back and bring something else. I said yes, and ordered the pork schnitzel.

Another relatively long wait ensued -- but not long enough. The schnitzel arrived, and I cut into it. Yes, it was significantly more tender than the last cut of pork. But it was pink inside. Although I’m a medium-rare kind of girl, we all know that pork must be fully cooked to be eaten safely. The server came to check back, and I said, “I’m not trying to be difficult here, but this is pink.” He needed me to point it out -- or was he just annoyed -- then jerked the plate off the table to return it to the kitchen. It was accompanied by what appeared to be roasted tomatoes topped with parmesan cheese, although no accompaniment was listed on the menu. (I know it's probably weird, but I really don't like tomatoes, and would rather have saved them the trouble of bringing them out if a substitution was not possible, which apparently it wasn't.)

In the meantime, the guest sitting just a little too close to me sent his trout back -- apparently he wasn’t expecting something so fried. The server insisted it was pan-fried, not deep-fried, but it still didn’t appeal to the nearby guest. The menu says it's sautéed in olive oil, but it appeared much more heavily breaded and fried than one would expect from the menu description. The waiter by now was quite irritated with how his night was going, and less than gracious with the nearby table.

Third time was the charm, I guess…at least the pork schnitzel was now apparently safe to eat. Flavorless, but edible. I don’t know where the parmesan crust was -- I saw lots of parmesan sprinkled on the accompanying tomatoes, but not seared on the pork as advertised. He said he had yelled at them in the kitchen. (It seems like there must have been lots of yelling going on back there, but I didn’t hear it, thankfully.) I ate most of what remained on the plate, although having the partially-eaten slice from before returned to me was not so appealing. Each time, they reheated the spinach and replated it before returning it to me, ultimately turning it from properly sautéed to limp.

Did I want dessert? Not really, but decided to try something to round out the review. Although a tray had been presented to customers early in the evening, when I inquired about a menu, my server said it was “oral.” He again recited the selections with a noticeable lack of gusto. I selected the lemon tart, and again prepared to wait. In the meantime, I had another glass of the lackluster wine -- my server had oh-so-generously comped that. At this point, I was surprised he didn’t get the manager involved, considering I had returned a dirty water glass and two entrees.

But rather than make even more of a fuss, I ordered the lemon tart. When it arrived, it was attractively presented with whipped cream and a strawberry (although the strawberry was pretty much inedible too, given that it wouldn't be ripe for weeks.) The lemon filling tasted good, but the crust was strangely grainy -- better results would have come from a store-bought crust from the freezer section. I ate part of it, then asked for the check.

The meal, even with the comped glass of wine, came to just shy of $60.00. If it were a $25.00 meal, or more had been comped, I might have excused some of the deficiencies. But to pay that much for a meal that could fairly be described as “gross,” tended to inspire outrage. Not to mention, it took over two hours to get through this travesty of a gastronomical experience -- hours of my life that I will never get back. (The other single diner -- the regular -- got her entrée to go. That should have been a sign.)

How was the jazz? I could only hear a little, but what I also found surprising was that the singer, Sandra Y. Johnson, would only sing a song or two, then take a long break. During the whole time I was there, I don’t think she sang more than four songs. It was a trio, and her piano player played a couple on his own, but even still, the intermissions were longer than the performances throughout the evening. When she wasn’t singing, the restaurant played classical music. Given the plethora of cool jazz stations out there, you’d think they would at least try to stick with the jazz genre. But not much about this evening made sense -- not the seating policy, the décor, nor the food preparation techniques. Needless to say, I won’t be back.

The only good discovery of the evening was the Crate and Barrel outlet store between where I’m staying and the restaurant. I’ll be visiting that more frequently in the future. Oh, and there was a Whole Foods nearby -- I would have done better (and saved myself a boatload) if I had just got some takeout from there.

Rating: 1 bamboo stalk out of 4. (I'm a panda fan, and a panda's favorite food is bamboo, so that's where my rating system comes from.)

Pros: not many, except the appetizer was decent and the music wasn’t half bad (when it was happening, that is.)

Cons: uninspiring atmosphere, inedible food, lackluster service, disappointing seating arrangements.

Bottom line: Don’t bother -- there have to be better places to eat in Old Town than this.

Post a Comment