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Food and customers need attention

June 08, 2008|By SAVORY SAM

Stepping into the newly redesigned space of Café Van Gogh is to be wowed by the changes from the previous incarnation. It has a new look and asserts itself as a "fine dining" establishment.

The Savory Sam Clan recently visited to celebrate a birthday and found the experience to be disappointing. For as much as we love Vincent Van Gogh's paintings and the cool black walls upon which several reproductions hung, a restaurant is, first and foremost, its food. Beyond its décor, its service, its chef's public persona, a restaurant's reputation rests ultimately on the dishes it serves. And with those criteria in mind, Café Van Gogh is a middle-of-the-road "fine dining" establishment.

With its lively menu of French- and Asian-inspired dishes, the café presents itself as a seductively undiscovered gourmet gem, tucked away on South Potomac Street in Hagerstown.

Its décor is a pleasant nod to its small French bistro affectations: The eight or so tables are intimately surrounded by warm bronze walls hung with prints by European Impressionists and Post-Impressionsists. A black ceiling and dim lighting add to the intimacy. The classical music CD is a little too vigorous for subtle background noise. The décor carries its intended theme - cozy downtown bistro - off well.

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Dinner began with warm, crusty French baguettes and dishes of soft butter. Too often restaurants skimp on the bread details, serving cold butter or, worse, margarine. Not so here.

The appetizer which followed, sundried tomato ravioli in a "lobster essence" cream sauce, fell short. The ravioli were few, swimming in a salty, creamy sauce. Some of the Savory Sam Clan thought the sauce tasty. Others complained about a lack of the advertised lobster flavor.

One other complaint: Instead of a requested Tuscan panzanella salad (fresh Mozzarella, tomato, kalamata olives, oil-and-vinegar dressing), the waitress brought a mesclun salad (spring greens, strawberries, Brie cheese, pineapple, balsamic dressing). The salad was fresh and not overly large, but not what was asked for.

We all received greens during the salad course, and all were good - the kitchen knows how to mix greens with a small serving of cheese and other thematic elements to create delightful salads.

The entrées, which followed soon after the salads were finished, were uneven. Our party had come with tentative hopes for a restaurant which would bring French cuisine's ambitious flavor interplay to the Hagerstown diner's palate. But we were disappointed.

Café Van Gogh has limited options for vegetarians. There's gnocchi (potato-based pasta) and fettuccine with four sauce options (all vegetarian), but little else. One Savory vegetarian ordered fettuccine with Alfredo-pesto créme and was mostly happy. The pasta was al dente and the sauce was pleasingly cheesy. But he couldn't finish it - the sauce was incredibly salty.

Another vegetarian ordered the four-mushroom soup and the gnocchi. The soup boasts a hearty, creamy mouthfeel, plenty of mushroom flavor and some fresh herbs that gave it a bit more flavor than Campbells'. But it wasn't amazing and we didn't ohh and aww. The gnocchi seemed not fully cooked and gooey inside.

The Savorys' beef aficianado tentatively ordered "grilled jumbo beefsteak au poivre," and wanted the middle warm red. The steak was grilled to specification, but the cut proved be a floppy ribeye. The menu said the steak was served with a green peppercorn demi-glace. But the meat seemed doused in prefabricated brown sauce with some green peppercorns thrown in.

One entrée which seemed up to snuff was the Thai green curry shrimp, which was creamy and spicy, boasting a scoop of fluffy Jasmine rice topped with an indulgent tuft of saffron threads. It was spicy - "an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10," said the chef - and good. The shrimps were juicy grilled little delights, bursting with spiciness and perfectly offset by fresh pineapple wedges.

The birthday diner ordered a mixed seafood grill with scallops, shrimp and vegetables. If there had been an interesting accompanying sauce to liven up the various seafoods it would have been a bit more tasty, but she objected to tepid rice, bitter zucchinni and overall lack of flavor.

The waitress was pleasant but often unhelpful. We asked questions, but often she needed to check with the chef for answers. The steak came without a steak knife. Water glasses were refilled with the salads, then sat empty for the remainder of our stay.

Disappointment sat heavy on us. Service was inattentive. Food was a mixed bag. But we overheard diners at adjoining tables say their food was good. We also wanted to praise Café Van Gogh, to enjoy our experience, but we found problems.

The cynical Savory summed it up. "There have been a lot of small, basic failings," she said.

We shared two desserts. A refrigerated case displayed European-style, house-made desserts that looked fabulous. We ordered a crme brle and a three-berry mousse with white chocolate topping.

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