Failing the Taste Test
A new D.C. restaurant's warm service can't make up for its marginal meals
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007
When a friend asks about the vegetarian meatloaf at Circa, our waiter closes his eyes, places a hand over his heart and breaks out the biggest grin this side of Julia Roberts. "The chef made us try it," he says, launching into a tale of initial doubt erased by actual exploration of the dish, which looks just like a square of cooked ground beef a la Mom, but turns out to be mushrooms, black beans and tofu pureed with balsamic vinegar, mustard and sauteed onions and carrots, doing a compelling imitation. The server's sales pitch is so convincing, there's no way we can say no to the entree, which is slathered with a zesty peach-chipotle "ketchup."
Good service is happening all around us in this new, all-purpose, breakfast-lunch-and-dinner destination in Dupont Circle. The hostesses act as if the best job in the world is guiding you to a seat, and the waiters proffer a taste of wine even when you're ordering by the glass. The mood of the staff is infectious. Looking around, there's not a sour face in the crowd.
And this, despite the reality: While the atmosphere sets a diner up for fun, the cooking is mostly marginal.
The clues are right in front of you, in print: For such a small restaurant, the kitchen thinks pretty big. Name your appetite, and there's apt to be a dish to accommodate it at Circa. The presence of vegetable pot stickers, fried oysters and lobster ravioli on the menu seems like a deliberate attempt to lure anyone who might be thinking of going to a nearby Asian, seafood or Italian competitor. A flurry of pizzerias have opened in Washington lately, and pizza -- white, red-sauced and otherwise -- surfaces here as well. There are also mini-burgers, entree salads and seafood stew to mull over.
Settle in with a drink, and make it a glass of wine. (Wine is hard to ignore, because the bar and the entrance to the kitchen are framed in bottles.) Thanks to co-general manager Jason Osborne, former bar manager at Coastal Flats in Fairfax, Circa takes this part of the show seriously, and the result is a pleasing selection of food-friendly wines from around the world that are offered by the 3-ounce splash and the 6-ounce standard pour delivered in glass carafes. The format is helpful -- wines are arranged by category, then varietal and the producer's name -- and it's a pleasure to see multiple gruner veltliners and a sparkling shiraz among the choices. Better yet, the prices on the standing script (Circa also offers a reserve list) average $35 a bottle.
I wish more care were taken with the solids. Almost every dish needs tweaking or, in some instances, a major makeover. In the case of the Thai-style chicken soup -- an orange swamp -- its broth should be lighter and its flavors sharper. In the case of those floppy pot stickers, filled mostly with cabbage and carrot, the problem is a peanut dipping sauce that tastes like melted industrial-quality peanut butter. The crust on the pizzas could pass for fused saltines, and the toppings aren't much better; wet, underseasoned spinach and mushrooms litter the vegetable pie. While the kitchen's tiny, three-to-a-plate hamburgers, or sliders, are adorable to look at, they're not much fun to eat (the patties are dry). The exercise isn't helped by french fries that taste as if they were manufactured in a plant rather than grown on a farm. Twice, I've tried the lamb skewers, and twice they've tasted more like beef than lamb and lacked any crustiness from their time on the grill. An accompanying salad of grated cucumber is also limp and wimpy. By my third visit, I found myself stretching to find some good in the lot: The best part of a crab sandwich is its toasted sesame-seed bun.
Because I haven't encountered silver or gold on my explorations, bronze will have to suffice. Brunch, for instance, finds snappy green-apple "mimosas" and satisfying omelets. My request for a vegetarian model delivers a fat and fluffy package filled with diced asparagus, colorful bell peppers, mushrooms, cheese and (oops!) bits of
bacon. Skin-on potatoes -- and fruit that appears to have been cut a day earlier -- complete the picture. The kitchen does a respectable job with risotto, pink with tomato. Unfortunately, I experience the creamy grains with a slab of halibut that is cooked as if it were destined for a space flight; it is devoid of any moisture. One of the lone lights in this culinary darkness is a salad fashioned from grilled shrimp, juicy mango, candied nuts and smoky slices of portobello. Light, colorful and full of interesting contrasts, the arrangement is the ideal antidote to a hot summer's day. If you've come for dessert, the soft chocolate cake with fresh berries is a safer choice than the soupy creme brulee.
A replacement for WrapWorks, Circa combines the trappings of Washington's typical casual American restaurant -- a couple of flat-screens, a communal table -- with details that make it pop out from the crowd. Squash-colored bar stools are sheathed in smooth leather, the ceiling is rippled rather than flat, and the palette favors earth tones over razzle-dazzle. So even when the place is playing to a full house, the effect is more sedate than rushed. The restaurant's corner location is prime, with sidewalk seating less than a minute from a Metro station. There's more to like: broad tables that give diners plenty of elbow room and user-friendly hours of operation.
Circa is a great idea on paper, a mixed bag in living color. Until the restaurant rethinks its plates, a visitor's best strategy is to drink, lounge and bask in service that almost makes you forget how forgettable the food is.