Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Survival of the Finest

A new chef warms to The Track's long-running success.

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Venerable means "worthy of respect or reverence by reason of age and dignity," but in the capricious restaurant world, where openings and closings occur as often as sitcom pilots, such an accolade may be bestowed in a matter of months.

Thus, it's truly an achievement when an establishment such as The Track nears three decades as a landmark in Carytown.

Owner Chris Lyles has been fine-tuning The Track since he took over the space in spring 1977. He converted it from an Italian restaurant, which it had been since the '30s, into what it is today, a quiet bistro where quality food doesn't run second to a glitzy decor.

Despite its name, as well as the photographs and drawings of thoroughbreds on the wall, The Track is not a theme restaurant. Lyles, who grew up with horses and as an adult played them, picked the name after visiting a room at Churchill Downs where a player could place a $2 bet on the Kentucky Derby and get a $5 New York steak.

Except for a welcome no-smoking policy, The Track is an old-fashioned, romantic, intimate place with a clubby feel. Its 35 seats are divided among banquettes, a few scattered tables and wood booths original to the building. A cozy bar frames the back wall.

The Track survives on loyalty. Lyles has fond memories of the early days when he picked up Cheerios dropped by children who now bring children of their own.

Lyles doesn't consider himself a chef, but when you've owned a restaurant as long as he has, you learn to fill in as a cook or you close. In recent years, though, he's been fortunate to hire talented chefs. The latest, Owen Lane, 29, came from Bacchus but made his reputation earlier at Helen's. He sought out Lyles at the recommendation of a former chef, Graham Reeves, who moved on to the acclaimed Dogwood Grille and Spirits.

Lane, who took over in November, has been given a free hand in the kitchen, with the proviso that any changes should be subtle. While he has put his imprint on the menu, only regulars might notice the change.

The menu remains small — just half a dozen appetizers ($5 to $10) and entrees ($22 to $30), along with a nightly special or two — yet has enough variety to please a range of tastes.

The pleasant and refined service begins with a generous portion of warm, crispy locally baked Billy Bread.

Appetizers soar from a couple of traditional salads to pan-fried veal sweetbreads over caramelized onions in a plum-wine reduction. Three jumbo scallops, expertly seared, stuffed with plums and adorned with pistachios, mint and bacon vinaigrette were filling enough to serve as a main course. A generous bowl of lentil soup, while piping hot and garnished with bits of carrots, celery and watercress, could have benefited from a flavorful stock and a dash of salt.

Some ingredients Lane favors, such as oyster mushrooms, find their way skillfully into both an appetizer (a Gorgonzola tart with applewood-smoked bacon topped with a red-onion marmalade) and an entrée (in the potato gnocchi that accompanies a herb-crusted cod). Both dishes warrant a return visit.

The Track record (forgive me) of offering first-rate seafood is further enhanced by Lane's use of dressing-deprived lump crab meat that benefits from a brush with lobster cream.

The special ingredient gracing a roasted lamb-loin eye is 20-year-old balsamic vinegar, which may not be old enough to drink (hold out for the half-century version) but is weighty enough to add substance to the dish. The entrée is further enhanced by white bean cream, grilled asparagus, tomato fondue and crispy fried leeks.

Desserts typically include crème brûlée, perhaps made with pumpkin; coconut cream pie; and flourless chocolate torte with raspberry sauce.

Lyles, who previously owned Puzzles in the Fan for 13 years, now spends most of his time at Taylor's, a sprawling family restaurant he bought two years ago in Deltaville, where he's owned a home since 1989. His time commitment to the Northern Neck has given rise to reports that The Track is for sale, to which Lyles responds: "Everything is for sale for the right price." S

The Track ($$$)
2915 W. Cary St.
359-4781
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday 5-10:30 p.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday.

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