Dishes to dazzle the eye and treat the tummy

If you find yourself in Frederick, the pretty Acacia deserves a try

Sunday Gourmet

November 23, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Acacia presents a daring front. But at its heart is a good-natured restaurant with food that even a conservative eater could love. True, tempura prawns with wasabi aioli, ginger peach chutney and umeboshi paint sound exotic; but one man's tempura prawns are another man's fried shrimp.

Acacia was opened last winter by Phil Bowers and his Fountain Rock Management Group, which has created quite a little restaurant empire. But unlike its siblings (Isabella's, Brewer's Alley and Gaithersburg's Summit Station), Acacia is aiming to be a destination restaurant.

It has the look. A series of dining rooms leads back and back to a garden at the very end. The rooms are done in peach and cream, with dusty-pink accents. Plants and pretty prints add to the feminine feel of the dining rooms, which are comfortable and not too noisy.

The food is billed as New American cuisine, a totally meaningless expression if you judge by Acacia's menu. (One exception was the soup of the day, a luscious winter squash puree prettily decorated with pumpkin seeds and shoots of chive.) I'm not sure what's New American about Moroccan braised rabbit or tataki of tuna fish. And there's very little sense of regional American food on the regular menu unless you count the crab cakes. This isn't a complaint, just an observation. It's as if the owner decided opening a New American restaurant was a good thing to do and then gave chef Frank Tyeryar free rein to create whatever kind of food he does best.

That might be an earthy and comforting country pate with cornichons or seductive avocado blinis, raised to star status by buttery little rock shrimp on the side. Tyeryar takes fat asparagus spears, cradles them in Belgian endive leaves, tops them with enormous lumps of crab and bathes them in a lemony sauce. The plate is decorated with watercress and a netted lemon tied with green ribbon for a very pretty presentation.

The appetizers are all visual stunners. There's an almost Japanese feeling to the colorful arrangements on square white plates. Desserts, too, are drop-dead gorgeous and out-of-this-world tasty. Only our entrees, which were decent enough, keep this from being a four-star restaurant.

If Acacia has a signature dish, it's probably the boneless sirloin steak, dominating the plate with its juicy, meaty flavor, edge of crisp fat and garlicky bit of corn relish topping. It's definitely a wow piece of meat, which makes it all the more puzzling that a huge mound of limp, highly oversalted shoestring potatoes sat beside it. The promised baby vegetables consisted of one baby carrot, one baby green bean, and one teeny-weeny squash.

Individual sea scallops are arranged on individual scallop shells, which is interesting if you think of food as art but doesn't have the more casual visual appeal of, say, the blinis. They are sauced with a bouillabaisse-style reduction.

Veal cheeks, fatty and flavorful, are the ultimate comfort food, swimming in a red wine sauce and mounded on whipped potatoes. The fish of the day was escolar, a white fish with a high oil content so it's almost impossible to overcook. This was swamped in a "crab fondue," a creamy sauce with more of those jumbo lumps of crab.

Acacia's food is more global than New American, but not its wine list, which emphasizes California wines. Oddly enough, it's not as moderately priced as the food is.

Acacia offers a cheese plate to end your meal, but it's hard to pass up the pastries. This time of year there's a fine, light pumpkin cheesecake that deserves to replace pumpkin pie as our national Thanksgiving dessert. The chocolate mousse will reduce a chocoholic to tears of gratitude, and the Key lime tart delivers bold, citrusy flavors. A warm clafouti, the classic French dessert of berries cooked in a batter as filling for a tart, is superb.

So is dinner at Acacia worth driving to Frederick from Baltimore for? Maybe not just for dinner, but if you're in the area it's definitely worth a stop. The sophisticated and interesting food, combined with reasonable prices (reasonable at least for an upscale restaurant) will please you. And most important of all, much of the food tastes great.

Acacia

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 129 N. Market Street, Frederick

Hours: Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, afternoon tea Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$9; main courses, $14-$28

Call: 301-694-3015

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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