Without having to brave the elements, you ascend from the parking area to the restaurant level of Forum VI.
At the entrance to Robert's, you walk through a bar-lounge area, then pause briefly at the maitre d' station. A baby grand piano sits on the right. The dining area is large enough to accommodate it without intrusion, and the pianist is skilled in his selections - medleys of Satie, Chopin, Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber, performed at a gentle, romantic level.
Blue-gray banquettes accented with ivory, stylized fleur-de-lis line the walls. Smoked-glass panels frame sections, reflecting tangerine grass cloth adorned with original oils in the Impressionist vein.
Formally clad waiters are perceptive and polished. When I left the table for a few moments, I returned to find that my plate had been removed to the warming oven, while the silverware was reset and the napkin refolded. When a guest mentioned that we would split an appetizer, the standard portion arrived on two plates (with no tacky ``plate charge' added).
No doubt it will seem incongruous to mention the concept of value in such a sophisticated setting.
Nevertheless, one of my visits to Robert's featured what has to be the best bargain in Triad dining history - the fixed price Complete Dinner ($15.95 for soup, salad, entree and dessert).
A medium-size bowl of robust Black Bean Soup bore carrots, green pepper, onion, celery and firm black beans, in a broth laced with sherry and topped with sour cream. A salad of oak leaf, radicchio, arugula, red-leaf lettuce and cucumber slices (sans seeds) had been accented with a mustard vinaigrette that gave off the pungence of real French mustard.
The entree consisted of scallops, seared with consummate skill, so that the exterior turned light brown while the interior remained plump and moist, with ravioli, homemade pasta sheets filled with herbed ricotta cheese, all arrayed around a nest of fresh spinach in a lemon-butter sauce just sharp enough to make the scallops bloom.
Dessert on that occasion was Harriet's Pound Cake.
``Who's Harriet?' I asked.
``Robert's mother,' replied the waiter.
Harriet and her son did themselves proud in a presentation with two slices of excellent cake flanking small, brilliant red strawberries resting in chantilly cream sauce.
With the complete dinner I was served crusty twist rolls - good, but not really noteworthy. On other visits, my guests and I knew we were in for a treat the moment the bread arrived, as a yeasty aroma rose up to envelope us.
That made us anticipate our first course even more. A special Seafood Soup ($3.50 / small bowl) contained grouper, crab and shiitake mushrooms in a complex fish broth - quite a taste adventure.
When my guests and I ventured into the entrees, we encountered offerings that reflected a wealth of diverse culinary traditions, merged into artistic presentations.
A marvelously tender and deeply flavored Beef Tenderloin ($18.95) had been married to a pungent shiitake mushroom sauce. Medium-size white mushrooms, carved into spirals, rested alongside.
Thai Shrimp ($16.95) - medium-large and perfectly deveined - surrounded honeydew melon balls. A sauce of lime juice, Szechuan peppers, honey and nuc nam (an Oriental fish stock), splendidly intense, nevertheless allowed the shrimp flavor to remain profound, well-complemented by the melon taste.
Seven Hour Duck ($5.95 appetizer portion, $13.95 entree) takes its name from a long, slow cooking process. The result was a deeply flavored, wonderfully tender meat, accompanied by steamed red cabbage and Granny Smith apples. The three principal tastes were rendered even more elaborate through a sauce of ginger, garlic, plum wine, rosemary and duck stock. The effect reminded me of a German treatment I relished years ago at Tell Erhardt's in Philadelphia - a high compliment, indeed.
Sizzled Grouper ($16.95), dusted with corn meal to form a crust, was placed over ratatouille with fans of fresh dill, yielding striking color contrasts of red, white, yellow and green. The palate of flavors was every bit as rich as the colors.
Roast Veal Loin ($19.95) included some of the highest quality veal I have encountered. Lentils in a lemon sauce surrounded the tender, pink slices. Alongside, a small kohlrabi (from the turnip family) had been carved into a basket containing sliced carrots.
Desserts selected from the menu ($3.95) included Charlotte of Two Chocolates - dark chocolate framing white chocolate, surrounded by espresso sauce, Chambord sauce and vanilla cream laced with pureed raspberries; plus strawberries in zabaglione - almost a custard, made from Marsala wine, egg yolks and heavy cream.
For a flaming tableside show, my guest ordered Crepes Suzettes ($5.95 / person), characterized by a sharp orange flavor.
Robert's is the creation of Robert Pearse, former executive chef of the Nicholas, which occupied this space. Laura Gratale Pearse is manager. Preparations represent the epitome of the melting pot personified in the ``new' New American Cuisine, combining ingredients, techniques and sauces from a myriad of cultures.
Robert's makes its debut with an excellent rating. After the required two-year waiting period, it will be reconsidered as a candidate for five stars, a rating as yet awarded only once.
ROBERT'S Forum VI 294-6665 Overall Rating:****
Hours: 6-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. (Reservations accepted) Credit Cards: Visa, MC, AmEx, DC Sanitation Grade: A (94) Atmosphere: 8 - elegant Recommended: Everything. This one is an adventure! Service: 8 - professional, polished and perceptive Entree Prices: $10.95-$21.95 Value: 10 for the fixed-price, full dinner; in general, 6 Handicapped Accessibility: All dining on one floor; access to the restaurant level of Forum VI by elevator or escalator What the ratings mean: Atmosphere, service and value are rated on a scale of 0-10, with 10 the highest. The overall rating, with food given the greatest weight, indicates: (no stars) not recommended; * acceptable; ** good; *** very good; **** excellent, ***** outstanding