The Old Angler's Inn struggles to deliver on its reputation for romance By Tom Sietsema The Washington Post Magazine Sunday, May 27, 2007 A modern-day Rip Van Winkle would have a tough time guessing the decade were he to wake up from his long slumber at the Old Angler's Inn these days. It could be the '60s. The dated sofas and flowery wallpaper in the dimly lighted foyer would look right at home in the Johnson administration, and so would the dead-on-arrival rolls that land, along with ice-cold butter, on the tables in the dining rooms upstairs. It could also be the '90s. Or so suggest an appetizer of smoked salmon on latticed potato chips and a dessert garnish of white chocolate mousse. With a few exceptions, one of the area's longest-running restaurants also gives mixed signals about what season it is. While soft-shell crabs made a splash on the menu late last month, diners also found wintry turnips accompanying sliced duck breast. Time has not been kind to the local institution. The Zagat Survey refers to Old Angler's Inn, an 1860 landmark restored in 1957, as "a great romantic getaway just 20 minutes outside the city," but I have to wonder when the guide's restaurant raters last dropped by. Aside from the flagstone terrace and animated fountain that greet visitors out front, the two-story "charmer" fails to tug at the strings of my heart. Inside and upstairs, the tired red carpet looks as if it hasn't been replaced since J.R. Ewing got shot on "Dallas," the captain's chairs creak with age, and the gloomy paintings on the walls look like leftovers from a rummage sale. (Candles, I was reminded here, can hide a multitude of sins that the light of day only magnifies.) I returned with the best of intentions, eager to taste the work of Jeffrey Tomchek. His name might register with chowhounds of a certain vintage; Tomchek cooked at Old Angler's from 1992 to 1997 -- and earlier, at the late River Club in Washington -- before leaving the scene for restaurant work outside Chicago. The chef's current menu weaves a lot of tradition with a soupcon of inventiveness, and his best efforts help you forget you fought rush-hour traffic on a winding road to try them. The more straightforward a dish sounds, the greater the chance of a score. One day's soup special, lobster bisque, tastes like the ocean filtered through velvet. Its gentle creaminess is only part of its appeal; there's also heat, from a Thai chili sauce, in each spoonful, and the soup is the vivid orange of a desert sunset. The kitchen tosses a respectable Caesar salad, which means you can taste anchovy (and lime) in the tangy dressing. Airy croutons and panes of aged Parmesan add crunch and character to the first course. While the aforementioned napoleon of smoked salmon and gaufrette potatoes dates back to Tomchek's first tour of duty here, I can understand why he trotted out the construction again. The soft folds of fish and the light crunch of their support add up to a fine assembly, and it's attractively set off with shimmering droplets of chive and beet oils on the plate. I'd like the chef's crab cake -- speckled with minced red bell pepper, corn and other vegetables -- better without the overpowering seaweed salad that tags along, and his seviche is a disappointment of thick coins of raw scallops "cooked" in too much lime juice and oddly garnished with crushed soybeans. The combination is bland, despite the inclusion of cilantro and trout roe. For the most part, the menu attempts to reassure, rather than test, diners' taste buds; most of the choices look as if they were plucked from a conservative hotel kitchen. There's steak (a generous beef rib chop), and it's plenty juicy if not particularly meaty-tasting. A scattering of crisp shallots improves the picture, as does a scoop of mashed potatoes spiked with horseradish. A veal chop sports a thin crust of Parmesan cheese and arrives on a bed of fluffy herbed polenta. The starch bests the protein, however, whose price tag of $40 is out of whack, given the neutral nature of the veal. Tomchek reveals his Wisconsin roots with an entree of sweet sauteed lake perch, flattered by a rousing tartare sauce, as well as crisp green beans and fat, sweet carrots. It was my favorite entree until I encountered the plump soft-shell crabs, dusted with polenta and fried to a gentle crackle. A dip of fish sauce, fresh herbs, chili paste and ginger gave each bite of fresh seafood heft, heat and a jolt of excitement. There is no such pulse in the salmon, which shows zero hint of an advertised coat of orange and horseradish, and is served with a dune of tiny dark lentils that appear to have bypassed the spice cabinet. The aforementioned duck could stand in for Ambien -- it's a real snooze -- and what's meant to flatter the fowl drags it down: A sauce of sweet huckleberries bears an unfortunate resemblance to Welch's grape jelly. The experience is not enhanced by the greeting, which can be slow and chilly, or the follow-up, which can be matter-of-fact. Some of the senior members of the service team act as if they'd rather be anywhere else. One evening, I'm told to wait in the foyer for someone to usher me up the small, circular metal staircase that bridges the ground floor and the second floor. Several long minutes pass before a grim-faced suit deems to rescue me from what feels like the lounge of a nursing home. My attempts to make conversation with the man fall flat. When I spot the supposedly desirable Table No. 6, whose two seats are framed by a window, the host dismisses the suggestion that it's romantic. I'm not sure why people like it, he responds. "There's no water view, just the road." The younger servers dish out more charm, but they don't always know what they're talking about. A request for a glass of wine to pair with the cheese course is answered with a cabernet sauvignon, because "it's heavy," a waiter spins. And when a party of six is seated next to me on my last visit, the same waiter encourages them to order the five- or seven-course tasting menu, in part because, "It's highly recommended by The Washington Post." Not true! I wanted to warn my neighbors (but remained silent). Hoping to reel in hikers, bikers and boaters, Old Angler's Inn recently put up a tent behind the wooded restaurant and added a list of "canal eats," including Wisconsin brats and St. Louis-style ribs, to its repertoire. Tomchek figures, "Not everyone wants a fancy and/or expensive meal." I couldn't agree with him more.