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BLUE DUCK TAVERN. The name alone evokes the image of a cozy, casual watering hole in hunt country or the Eastern Shore, with duck decoys adorning the walls around the fireplace. Well, forget all that. As wonderful as it is, the Blue Duck Tavern at the Park Hyatt Hotel in the West End looks, and feels, nothing like what its name suggests. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: The decor is all-modern, sleek, with lots of glass and stainless steel and smooth, dark woods. That must be the point: to scramble expectations even before you walk in the door. That is, assuming you can find the door. On my first visit for dinner, I could not. Nothing in the vicinity of the corner of 24th and M had a lit sign that said “Blue Duck Tavern.” So my dinner mate and I inquired in the hotel lobby, and we were escorted to the un-tavernlike tavern. There we stood. The lighting was subdued, the d�cor minimal. The entry area was a maze of swiveling coat-closet units and glass-enclosed nooks and crannies. We had no idea — truly, no idea — where to find the host or hostess to present ourselves for seating. Call me old-fashioned, but when I enter a restaurant I’d like some kind of visual cue that telegraphs “hostess station” to the uninitiated. (Same goes for the restrooms; finding the facilities at the Blue Duck was an uncharted adventure that I could have done without.) Eventually the hostess spotted our telltale looks of bewilderment and wandered in from an adjoining space to greet us. She told us curtly that we were five minutes early for our reservation, something we already knew. Because we were early, she said without a trace of sympathy, our table was not ready. Her tone suggested we were morons for thinking that in this precision timepiece of a restaurant, a table might be ready even a minute earlier than called for. She then seated us in a bar area that was walled off from other patrons, and there we sat until 15 minutes after our table was supposed to be ready. Were we being punished for arriving early? We finally were shown to our table, but my deep foreboding about the evening continued when our waiter appeared. He was correct and formal, bordering on robotic, and I was beginning to long for a friendly neighborhood . . . tavern. But then came the food, and all that went before was mostly forgiven or forgotten. The impeccably prepared, deeply flavorful food made the oddly antiseptic ambiance recede to the background. The first dazzler was a salad of Boston lettuce ($8), beautifully arranged with hazelnuts and a mustard vinaigrette dressing. The colors and flavors were like an oasis in the colorless surroundings. Fresh, lightly fried sardines also shone, complemented by the assertive flavors of shaved fennel and preserved lemon. We were off to a great start, and the entrees continued our luck. The short rib — actually, a long, primeval-looking thing — was somewhat fatty, but falling-off-the-bone flavorful, served with a mild horseradish sauce ($25). My friend’s crab cakes ($26) were superbly crabby, as good as any you can find in town. Side dishes are easy to share, delivered to the table in shiny metal pots, and the best we had was a serving of trumpet mushrooms ($12) with garlic and thyme. The wild-rice herb cake was the only clunker, a drab, muddy-colored rice cake atop an equally drab green dollop of collards. It seemed like the color register was off, and the flavor was not memorable. We tried apple pie ($8) for dessert — an entire pie, personal size — and some homemade gingerbread ice cream. Wonderful comfort food on a chilly night. The only odd note was the presentation of the ice cream, deposited in an outsized glass bowl with a large wooden spoon that we were supposed to use to serve ourselves. It seemed clumsy and pointless. Although it turned out to be a fine evening, because of the disconnect between the cold surroundings and the warm food, I went back, this time for lunch. In daylight, it turned out, the food and ambience were in much better alignment. The entry area was still a maze, but with sunlight pouring in, we could at least see where things were. The wait staff also seemed to come alive in the light of day; they were more casual and a lot friendlier. The food again was the star. Homemade bratwurst ($17) was tender and light, and the plump roasted Maine scallops ($19) were a surprise. The chef marinates them in red wine, giving them a meatier look and taste, but then finishes them with a white wine reduction. Steak fries were terrific, stacked up and squared off like a bundle of kindling sticks. The parsnips were the best they could be, with a garlicky and buttery glaze. The desserts were again a treat: roasted pineapple-pecan cake atop a chunky layer of hazelnut chocolate, and a pumpkin and cranberry custard with a hazelnut cake. Both had probably one more ingredient than necessary, but they worked. The Blue Duck Tavern is a fine choice for lunch with a friend or a client. Dinner is more of an adventure — at least until the owners spring for more signage and the wait staff loosens up. But either way, the food at the Blue Duck Tavern ranks among the best the District has to offer.
Legal Times Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro has also reviewed restaurants for nearly 30 years. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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