MORE WAYS to eat like an ambassador on a $20 budget:
At many of the best-regarded restaurants, especially with American portions the size they typically are -- the size of whole European courses -- two appetizers would be enough to keep you going in style.
At DC Coast (14th and K streets NW; 202/216-5988), two of Jeff Tunks's most celebrated creations are listed as appetizers, but are plenty filling, richly satisfying and still leave budget room for a beverage: They are his signature Chinese lacquered duck,served Peking duck-style in two rolls; and what is surely going to become a signature dish, the "osso bucco"-stuffed ravioli with broth for sopping.
You can really get a lot of bang for the buck at the biz-buzz Bistro (24th and M streets NW; 202/457-5020) because each customer is served not only a basket of mixed breads with sun-dried tomato tapenade (the winter version is kalamata) at the front end of the meal but also a complimentary taste of house-made truffles at the finale. Fill in the missing courses with one of the several rich salads and the trio of Maryland crab, which includes a roasted soft-shell crab, a mini-crab cake and jumbo crab meat on greens and potatoes. Or salute chef Peter Moutsos's Middle Eastern expertise by ordering the chilled yellow tomato gazpacho and then the vegetarian antipasto entree salad, which combines hummus, baba ghanoush, spicy olives, artichokes, mozzarella, more of that great sun-dried tomato tapenade and crispy pita bread.
Similarly, you could get plenty of the flavor of Bistro Bis in the Hotel George (15 E St. NW; 202/661-2700) through the appetizer and side dish lists. Consider a deluxe seafood dinner of steamed mussels in classic tomato-Pernod broth plus the St. Tropez salad of poached lobster and scallops with grapefruit, avocado and mesculin, plus wine. If you paired the Basque-style fried calamari with a side dish of ratatouille Nicoise or a gratin of Provencal-style summer squash, you might even manage a little more wine.
At Tahoga (2815 M St. NW; 202/338-5380), you could have both the crayfish chowder with a corn muffin and the spicy crisp quail over baby greens with buttermilk dressing (you'll push over the top a bit for the wine, but come close); or go fusion with the tuna tartare with seaweed salad and the fried soft-shell crab with sweet corn relish and just about make the cut.
It's hard to imagine anyone could feel deprived after downing both the cornmeal-crusted oysters with prosciutto, roasted sweet corn, wilted spinach and chipotle remoulade and the "anti-pasto" platter of smoked trout, peppered mackerel and grilled marinated vegetables at Addie's in Rockville (11120 Rockville Pike; 301/881-0081). And wine, and bread . . .
If you prefer veggies to salads or appetizers, consider an entree and an extra side dish: At the Market Street Grill in the Hyatt Reston (President and Market streets; 703/709-6262) you could opt for the rigatoni with marinated chicken, grilled veggies and goat cheese cream or the sauteed stuffed tofu over rice with bok choy and shaoxing-soy sauce, and either open with the smoked corn and blue crab chowder with red chili garnish or the tofu-doubling miso soup (you know how good that is for you). Or you could skip the soups and order a plate of stir-fried baby bok choy, sauteed spinach, jumbo asparagus, etc. Or go back to the dual high-concept appetizer approach: Follow the saffron-poached pear stuffed with gorgonzola and walnuts over white radicchio with the lobster over grits with mushrooms and leeks, and have that wine.
These examples assume you want substance rather than sweets, but of course you could also select one large appetizer or an entree salad and then cut directly to the dessert chase. It's been known to happen.
Several chefs and managers suggested other ways to get the full restaurant experience on a budget. Manager Frank Kren of the tres-elegant Lespinasse in the St. Regis Hotel (16th and K streets NW; 202/879-6900) points out that in most cases, the same chefs and sous-chefs are on duty during lunch, when prices are generally much lower, as at dinner; so another way to afford good food is to weight your budget toward early afternoon. (Nutritionists recommend that anyway.)
At the classic French-Basque Bistrot Lepic in Glover Park (1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/333-0111; not wheelchair accessible), the lunch menu is also nearly the same as dinner, but at about 30 percent of the cost. And there are frequently other bargains about lunch as well: Every glass of wine at Tahoga is half-priced, for instance, and the staff is very knowledgeable, so you might be able to afford two glasses and compare them.
Finally, check about early-bird prices; Market Street cuts prices by nearly one-third weekdays from 5:30 to 6:30. Quite a few restaurants, particularly in the downtown theater areas, offer fixed-price pre-theater menus, typically available from 5:30 to 7 or 7:30, with two or three choices per course, that virtually always come in under the $20 mark. There's an extra benefit to this: Since most restaurants don't start to fill up until 7:30 or 8 (after all, the idea of early-bird bargains is to bring in business at hours when dining rooms are quiet), you are apt to get more relaxed, attentive and helpful service. This is a particularly good time to take advantage of the staff's wine and food suggestions.
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