Washington has more than a few sleek lounges with couches, tapas and $10 cocktails. Bar Rouge, located inside the Rouge Hotel, is the newest in this category, and it has a few things going for it: an adventurous cocktail menu, no cover charge and no dress code.
Bar Rouge is much more understated than Topaz, its sister bar at the Topaz Hotel -- no color-shifting lights or leopard-print rugs here -- but the throne-like armchairs, long couches, upholstered walls and aluminum barstools with white leather seats keep the hip quotient high. Behind the bar, a flatscreen monitor shows classic films or soothing images of nature. The sound system pumps out acid jazz and other electronic beats, and, thankfully, it's usually not too loud to prevent conversation.
The cocktails on the menu are pricey ($8-14) and delicious, although most are on the sweet side -- it seems like every drink on the menu is based around fruit-flavored alcohol. The list changes often; To my dismay, I became attached to certain libations, only to see them disappear weeks later. If you're unsure about what to order, ask one of the knowledgeable bartenders.
Size is a problem for Rouge -- it's a long, narrow room that can seat about 40 people, with three tables for two and several "booths" with couches and benches arranged around long tables.There's a hidden back room -- turn right at the main bar and cross the hall -- but it's also small, with just a few high tables and long benches. On a Saturday night, space is at a premium.
-- Fritz Hahn
The San Francisco-based Kimpton hotel chain blew into town like a lion last year, opening two flashy boutique hotels within months -- and substantially raising the style bar for area sleepovers. The Topaz Hotel welcomed guests' dogs with their own crackers; the Hotel Rouge invited its
two-legged patrons to wake up to complimentary bloody marys at a bar in the lobby. As further incentive, the
company also lured 33-year-old John Wabeck back from Napa Valley to Washington, where he once cooked at New Heights, Restaurant Nora and 1789.
The chef's fresh challenge: To dream up a couple of smart little menus of appetizer-size plates, a distinct signature for each property.
From a design standpoint, Bar Rouge, which opened just a short stroll away from Topaz in December, is much more to my taste. I like the dimensions: The narrow room has clusters of tall-backed chairs to the left of the entrance, a floor-to-ceiling, pillow-strewn banquette to the right and, at the back, a bar with a flat screen that alternates between showing hypnotic "mood" tapes (picture glowing hearths) and old black-and-white movies (think "The Maltese Falcon"). Unlike Topaz, Rouge has windows, and they're cleverly dressed with see-through purple curtains. But just like Topaz, it has tables too small to
accommodate much more than a few drinks and an appetizer or two.
That's less of a problem than you might imagine, as I learned after sampling almost everything on the menu at least twice. While the list of 10 savory dishes reads every bit as enticingly as its sibling's, the kitchen at Rouge doesn't deliver the same strong performances. Some plates are too restrained. A trio of bland, one-bite sopaipillas are topped with crab seviche that barely registers, for instance, and the "salpicon" of smoked trout and cubed potatoes amounts to a snooze of a fish hash. Other dishes suffer an opposite flaw: I could barely taste my squash-filled ravioli, the sauce was so violently acidic. And a few selections fall somewhere in between. A Thai-style chicken and mushroom soup, rich with coconut milk and hinting of lime, cried out for some salt to tie its flavors together; the morsels of supposedly smoked chicken needed a flavor boost, too.
So what's left to accompany an overpriced glass of wine? ($10 for a glass of Kim Crawford chardonnay that goes for about $12 a bottle wholesale? Give me a break!) The quesadilla, for one thing. It comes out punching with smoky portobellos, goat cheese and dried tomato. There's also a satisfying hanger steak, cooked as you like it, then sliced into rectangles and arranged on a pile of cumin-laced roast potatoes. More straightforward is the chopped romaine salad, tossed with nuts and apple and a subtle mustard dressing. While I'd choose Jell-O pudding over the wan butterscotch pot de creme here, the warm, cinnamon-scented cider soup, centered with true-tasting green apple sorbet and showered with matchsticks of red apple, is a novel conclusion.
No doubt, Rouge and Topaz are hip additions to a city rarely applauded for its flair. Still, having sipped and nibbled my way through both, I find myself wishing I could order off the menu from Topaz, and eat my picks in the
embrace of Rouge.
Open: for breakfast daily 7 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch
Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5 to 10:30 p.m. Full meal with wine, tax and tip about $45 per person.
-- Tom Sietsema