HAPPY CAMPERS: At Holiday Inn Presidential Center.
The Holiday Inn Presidential Center, I must admit, holds some bad memories for me. It was there, on assignment a few weeks back, that I watched the power-tie-wearing Republican horde cheer George W. Bush back into office, roaring like the dogs of war every time another state turned to the Dark Side — I mean, turned red.
I tried not to hold that against Camp David restaurant, however. Situated in a cozy corner of the first floor, overlooking the hopeful and prosperous glow of the Clinton Presidential Center, they can’t very well help what kind of riff-raff the desk books into the meeting rooms down the hall.
It is a cozy place. Though we’ve become something of fans of their $7.99 lunch buffet (it changes daily, though the stick-to-your-ribs Italian on Wednesdays is a personal fave), Camp David transforms into a romantic getaway at night, with candles on the tables, and the goggle eyes of the mounted leviathans/game fish on the walls mercifully hidden by the shadows.
On a recent night, one of the first problems we encountered was the dinner menu. It was written out just fine, with sometimes clever plays on the overall presidential theme. But where the prices should have been, there were mysterious boldface numbers. George Bush Burger, 8. Stir Fry Shrimp with Homemade Pasta, 16. Sicilian Chicken with Capers, 12. We were stumped. They were mostly too high to be prices, we thought, so what could they be? Between Companion and me, we guessed the numbers might be everything from room service code (“For Thai Beef Salad, press 8 now”) to a ploy to keep the non-paying dinner guest from knowing just how generous their host was being by springing for the check. It was only when we got the ticket that we figured out that our first instinct was the right one: The numbers were the prices, sans dollar sign and rounded up (probably up, considering how expensive everything was) to the nearest whole buck. Duh. Still, I’m almost positive that more than one diner at Camp David has been unhappily surprised when those mystery numbers turned out to be 16, 14, 12, 22, 19, plus drinks and tip.
For an appetizer, we tried the stuffed mushrooms (7). Sauteed in butter and nearly as big as silver dollars, they were filled with a fine cheese and seafood mixture. Pretty standard, though they were soon gone.
For an entree, I tried the pork loin in red chile sauce (14), while companion tried the Caribbean chicken (12), a roasted chicken breast over seared fruit and rice. I must say that the overall quality of the food has definitely gone up at Camp David since our first visit soon after it opened last year. The pork was tender and good, beautifully served with a spicy crimson sauce over mashed potatoes. Same with the chicken — good, pretty to look at, with a sweet glaze. The problem with Camp David, it seemed to me, lies in the fact that everything we were served evoked the same reaction: good.
Call me crazy, but as a diner, this reviewer would rather have food that outright insults with its flavor than something that bores with its sameness — especially in a place that obviously strives for “fine dining” with prices to match. Overwhelm me. Assault my palate. Make me spit the damned thing out on my bread plate and cover it with a napkin, but serve me something that I can TASTE.
While it was obvious the chef was trying, for my money, both dishes lacked zing. The pork was spicy, but just spicy enough to legally be called that on the menu. The chicken was tender, juicy, but neither as flavorful nor as sweet as something called “Caribbean” by all rights ought to be.
To be fair, Companion had many good things to say about Camp David, most centering around the idea that when you’re traveling and decide to stay in for the night and eat at the hotel, you’re looking for comfort food, not stuff that will make your sinuses turn inside out. They had a great children’s menu, she pointed out, and the lime cheesecake we had for dessert was tasty.
And, like I said, everything we tried was good.
The problem is, when you pay almost 50 for a meal for two (without even a glass of vino on the tab) that’s both the good news and the bad news.