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High-concept presentation, uneven execution

March 18, 2007|by SAVORY SAM

I looked forward to sampling the food at Duffy's on Potomac, the swanky new restaurant across Potomac Street from The Maryland Theatre. But after visiting Duffy's more times than any other restaurant we've reviewed, the Savory Sams and I have a mixed review.

Duffy's is definitely worth visiting - some elements of the dining experience are stunningly classy, and some dishes are terrific - but the young restaurant opened in November and seems to be going through typical growing pains. Some elements of the dining experience are puzzling.

A glance around the dining room shows that a lot of thought and money went into the interior design of Duffy's, and the result is striking. The atmosphere is open, casual and spacious - high concept, high contrast. The color scheme is light and dark. Pale yellow walls, original wood floors and original leaded glass in the front windows are set off by black fixtures - black wood tables and chairs, black bar, black half-walls separating booths along one wall and the bar along the opposite wall. (See a photo on Duffy's Web site, www.duffyson potomac.com.) High-backed, comfortable booths provide a sense of privacy in the spacious room.

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But the high-concept, high-class atmosphere is spoiled by three flat-screen TVs visible to the entire dining room. And the TVs have been on every time I have visited - afternoon and evening. The sound is turned off, but the images are still distracting. I don't want to see TV in a classy restaurant. The background jazz music is more suitable, ranging from small ensembles to female vocalists to jazz standards.

My closest companion dined with me one night. We sat at a booth. Our conversation was lively, and I managed to avoid looking at the TV too much.

Crusty rolls arrived in a stylish, conical, wire "basket." We liked the rolls but rolled our eyes at the accompanying two chilled scoops of bean dip, a black bean lump and a white bean lump. The presentation is high-concept, like the dining room - pale and black, remember? - but the two scoops are refrigerator-cold and "have no flavor," my companion said.

I ordered an appetizer of blackened shrimp; my companion ordered scallop tempura; we split a Caesar salad.

Food presentation at Duffy's is as well-designed as the dining room. Sometimes it is like art on a plate. My shrimp were served in a generous smudge of peanut sauce on a long, boatlike dish with two tasty wedges of dressing-drizzled red oakleaf lettuce on the side. The lightly battered, deep-fried scallops were pierced like popsicles; three of them stood in three colorful sauces - yellow (aioli), red (a dried-tomato sauce) and rich brown (the same peanut sauce as on my plate). We loved the presentation and the flavors; the scallops disappeared quickly.

Eating the shrimp, however, was a chore. I thought "blackened" implied seared or broiled; instead pink shrimp were speckled with what appeared to my eyes and mouth to be burnt sawdust. Visually clever, but a mess of flavor and texture. The blackened herb, if that's what it was, imparted no flavor I want to taste again.

The Caesar salad was fine - fresh romaine well-coated with dressing and highlighted with light, crunchy croutons and long ribbons of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

For dinner, I ventured outside my box to try the elk osso buco with winter spice sauce and mashed potatoes; my companion ordered the spicy tempura crab sushi with grapefruit. Both dishes were excellent. Osso buco is a traditional Italian dish featuring slow-cooked veal shank; the result is a rich, tender meat. Duffy's elk version is rustic, mounted on a pile of delicious mashed potatoes and drizzled with a zesty sauce.

I also liked the tempura crab sushi, though my companion was not as keen on it. She found the sushi heavy, with its deep-fried crab. Grapefruit sections on the side were nicely complimentary, but the wasabi lump on the side was neon green, almost plasticky.

The dinner was memorable, but the food and service were uneven.

On a later occasion, I took a private lunch and ordered the bibb lettuce salad with raspberry vinaigrette and baked brie. I would never order this on my own; I do not go for sweet salad dressings. The wedge of bibb lettuce was fresh, buttery-soft and crunchy, and the vinaigrette was tart and sweet - what I expected. The small block of brie was wrapped in phyllo dough and deep-fried - a nice touch. Overall, a successful dish.

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