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No Vacancy

IT WAS A COLD WINTER NIGHT when I first wandered into Circle Bistro to taste the cooking of its new chef, Brendan Cox, and I was primed for something special. The chef had worked with Todd Gray at the respected Equinox and had performed so well that Gray had installed him as the lead chef when he opened a second restaurant, Market Salamander in Middleburg.

I must have caught Cox on an off night. Most of the food I encountered that late January evening was upstaged by the West End hotel's cozy dining room, which seems to glow orange and gold. An onion tart -- featuring a whole charred onion on a wisp of pastry -- was awkward to deconstruct, while roast chicken had had the juiciness cooked right out of it. Roast lamb served with Swiss chard was pleasant enough, but hardly special. Dessert proved to be the lone inspired course that evening: warm, feather-light madeleines with a not-too-sweet tangerine jam for dipping.

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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More than a month later, I found myself at Circle Bistro again, eating a sublime beef tartare shocked with capers and pickle juice and presented with a cone of delicate, house-made potato chips. No wonder this classic endures. An elegant soup was its equal, and it came in two parts: a roux-thickened, saffron-infused blend of mussel liquor and cream, alongside a little dish of warm mussels buried in airy herbed crumbs. A bite of tender sea-food followed by a spoonful of the hot soup was pure pleasure. Those refined appetizers were trailed by additional seductions, entrees of crisp-skinned duck sliced over red cabbage and wilted spinach, and halibut swaddled in bacon and poised on leaves of Brussels sprouts.

Another day, another pleasure: head-on trout, its skin dusted with lemon zest and strewn with some bright, glazed green beans, then simply garnished with slivered almonds and a hint of butter sauce. The faintly sweet fish tasted as if it had been caught that morning.

Cox hasn't forgotten that's he's working in a hotel near the Kennedy Center, so he also offers a crowd-pleasing hamburger on the lunch menu, and a three-course, pre-theater menu for $40 (until 7 p.m.).

Pastry chef Heather Chittum, also an Equinox alum, leads diners into temptation with her sophisticated desserts. In addition to those madeleines, her fine finishes have included a mille-feuille pastry fashioned with wine-infused pears and fluffy sabayon; an excellent cappuccino-flavored creme brulee served with a bite of ultramoist coffeecake and a doll-size eclair; and sorbets that honor their fruits (grapefruit and blood orange are particularly refreshing).

Dessert is a restaurant's last chance to make a good impression, and Circle Bistro does just that.

ASK TOM

Earlier this year, Lori Katz went online to book a table at 2941 in Falls Church for 8 p.m. Saturday, February 19. "The system told me that wasn't available," wrote the Springfield reader, "and gave me the next available reservation," for 8:30. "What I didn't notice was that the date for the next available reservation was March 18." No surprise, then, that when Katz and company showed up at 2941 on February 19, the reservation couldn't be found. The maitre d' looked into the situation, and despite Katz's goof, "we were seated at a lovely table by the fireplace . . . and never made to feel as if the error was ours, even though it was." The restaurant's general manager, Brett Chappell, confirmed the incident when I called him and said it wasn't the first time a guest had shown up on the wrong date. Even if it's not the restaurant's fault, he said, "we want to be able to take care of them." The story is a reminder for diners to always reconfirm their reservations a day or so in advance -- especially if the restaurant hasn't already done so.


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