Theodore's is an unusual and ambitious new establishment For decades all but inaccessible to the civilian inhabitants of this world, Fort Benjamin Harrison was something of a mystery to me, and doubtless to countless others. One of the largest war-related constructions in the nation, this self-contained city within a city occupied hundreds of acres of prime real estate just a spit and a hook shot from some of the costliest waterfront properties in the state, yet might as well have been situated in Wyoming, such was its remoteness from the rest of the populace.

Glen Urso is executive chef at Theodore"s

Since its closing in 1997, Fort Ben has undergone a sea change and looks set to continue to develop in all kinds of interesting and profitable ways for many years to come. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do developers despise open spaces and greenery. It is inevitable that soon, this vast, formal military complex will be a tangle of malls, condos and asphalt as the tide of progress sweeps away the symmetry of the past. I have little doubt that many of those who bemoaned the downsizing of our military might were among the first to financially exploit this windfall of real estate and the boundless opportunities it presents for profit and golf.

Wherever condos and apartments may gather, restaurants are sure to follow, which is why it should come as no surprise to anyone that some enterprising professionals have chosen to establish a high-quality restaurant and hotel in one of the more elegant buildings to grace Fort Benjamin Harrison's sprawling acres.

If you've ever visited the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and have wandered its corridors and great rooms with the glazed-over look of a stunned mullet on its first (and possibly last) time out of water, you'll have a good idea of how I felt on a recent visit to Theodore's, an unusual and ambitious new establishment that attempts to paint a picture of twenty-first century comfort onto a canvas of nineteenth century austerity. A former U.S. army infirmary, The Kendall Inn projects an air of elegance that seems still informed by its military past.

Inside, despite pastels and soft furnishings, the hard lines of the original interior refuse to be softened. There's a palpably institutional quality to the place, a restless formality that reminds me too much of boarding school for comfort. As my friend and I sat in the sparsely-appointed bar, enjoying a pre-dinner drink, I half expected to hear my old headmaster storming down the corridor, rosary beads clicking against his cricket bat and that unmistakable stentorian roar: "Charles! Do you mean to tell me you"ve been drinking Champagne again?"

Although we had been warned when we called to make reservations that the service might be a bit on the slow side ("we're short handed tonight"), we felt that the kitchen and the servers maintained a well-judged pace once our presence had finally been acknowledged. Seated in the main dining room, we were treated to a set of murals, age undetermined, that featured prominently the principal buildings of Fort Ben, incongruously depicted, trompe-l'oeil style, against a background of dusty, rolling hills and idyllic Indian teepees.

Overseeing the entire dining room, punctuated by a fire alarm and smoke detector, was the image of Theodore Roosevelt himself, sporting a Groucho Marx-like mustache and benevolent smile. (It is for the former president that the restaurant is named, as he officially approved Fort Benjamin Harrison back in 1903.) Ordering a bottle of excellent New Mexican fizz from the sensible and well-priced wine list, my friend and I sat down to a dish of jumbo shrimp cocktail ($8.95) and a sort of piÒa-colada soup of the day, that was both refreshing and a touch alcoholic. If I see another jumbo shrimp cocktail with horseradish-tomato sauce on a menu, though, I think I'm going to scream - but let's leave it there. The quality was fine but the concept was, dare I say, unimaginative.

As the beef short ribs were not available (having just been permanently removed from the menu) I opted for a loin of pork, served with fingerling potatoes in a (I suspect veal) "glaze." For $24, this dish got to the heart of this restaurant's aspirations and achievements. I'm sure that there might be a lot of people out there who would have been thoroughly satisfied with this dish. After all, it offers two big chunks of meat, lots of spuds (nicely roasted, by the way), and a rich, heavy sauce.

On closer inspection, however, we find that the meat is quite fatty (unusual for the loin, in my experience) and of a slightly soggy texture. The sauce, described precisely as a glaze on the menu, in fact consists of three or so tablespoons of monochromatic demi-glace, that does not taste as if it is made on the premises. It's thick, gelatinous and very salty. I detect none of the subtlety that derives from a well-made stock that is then lovingly reduced, flavored with a little wine or cassis (or whatever) then thickened with unsalted butter. As I made my way through this dish, the same word kept knocking like a tiny hammer behind my forehead: "institutional Ö institutional."

The rest of the meal was equally, dare I say once again, sound. Yet, despite the ambition and the expense, pedestrian. Full marks for dÈcor. High marks indeed for service and atmosphere. If I were planning a wedding or a business gathering, this would be near to the top of the list. If just a little more thought and expertise went into the food, this could be a fine dining destination. One day, perhaps?

Theodore's5830 N. Post Road 638-6050 Lunch Mon-Fri 11-2 Dinner Mon-Thur 5-9 Fri, Sat 5-10 Sun Brunch 10-2 Food : 3 stars

Atmosphere : 4 stars

Service : 3 1/2 stars


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