Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, for dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Saturday. AE, V, MC, D. Reservations suggested. A complete dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 to $40 a person.
Washington's Irish restaurants have generally been bars that happen to serve food. The Powerscourt, while it happens to have an extremely handsome bar, puts its focus squarely on food. In fact, this is the first attempt hereabouts to open an elegant Irish restaurant (Irish Yuppie, suggested a dining companion). That's not the only surprise: The Powerscourt is located where there are otherwise few restaurants, and it is on the second floor of a hotel that has been recently -- and gloriously -- renovated. There are rosewood and chandeliers, a curving sweep of staircase and valet parking -- all news on North Capitol Street.
If a quiet lunch or dinner is on your mind, The Powerscourt serves the purpose handsomely (unless you are seated near the cash register at the end of the room). Long and narrow, with tables nuzzling up to curved banquettes, The Powerscourt has spaced its tables sufficiently to allow privacy. And its pale walls, punctuated with dark polished wood columns and classical paintings, make a serenely pretty setting garnished with little baskets of flowers and elegant tableware. The service matches the character of the room: polished, quiet, gracious.
So what's Irish about this endeavor? You have to look closely to find elements of the answer. The napkins folded into fans on the service plates are pale green, as is the menu insert. Potatoes appear as a soup and with each main dish. The smoked salmon is Irish, the steak is sauced with Irish whiskey, and the dessert mousse is flavored by Irish cream liqueur. The bartender, in addition, makes a good classic Irish coffee, and serves brandy in what look like Waterford goblets.
Otherwise, the menu is the usual continental m,elange of mushrooms stuffed with crab meat or snails (here pretentiously called "Vineyard Snails"), p.at,e and cold seafood appetizers; roast beef, steaks, rack of lamb, fish of the day and salmon stuffed with crab meat, veal scallops and chops, lobster plain or Savannah and something called crab souffl,e.
Which brings us to the question of pretension. The Powerscourt would be better off without it. That crab souffl,e is actually crab meat (with too much green pepper) wrapped in puff pastry (doughy inside); it's a turnover rather than a souffl,e, and its misidentification leads to disappointment. One appetizer, "Cascade de Hors D'oeuvres," is a very strange concept. As explained by our waiter, for $9.95 you can choose any two appetizers (most of which would add up to more than $10). So we tried the smoked salmon ($8.50) and the shrimp and scallops vinaigrette ($5.95), which turned out to be a handsomely garnished platter of excellent sliced smoky salmon, two marinated shrimps and two marinated raw scallops, both good but in all no particular bargain.
I definitely would order the smoked salmon again, even at $8.50; its quality and flavor were outstanding. And I would not miss the potato soup, the most distinctive and delicious dish on the menu. A very rich and eggy cream it is, with not only cubes of potato but also a little mound of delicious fresh lobster bits. Homey potato soup has never been raised to greater luxury, and for a mere $2.95. The other nonroutine appetizer was stuffed mussels, but at lunch they were shriveled and fishy tasting. At dinner they were more plump and fresh but merely decent rather than outstanding.
Lunch was nowhere near as good as dinner. Besides the doughy pastry-wrapped crab, there was a dried-out salmon with a bitter aftertaste and a hollandaise that sorely missed lemon and furthermore had cooked to firmness on the plate. A pasta salad was tossed with that fine smoked salmon and fresh broccoli but was otherwise unseasoned and undressed, dry and dull, garnished with an odd juxtaposition of tomatoes, cucumbers, kiwis and honeydew. In fact, fruit garnished everything from smoked salmon to steak at lunch and dinner.
The steak was good, even at lunch, particularly because its brown sauce of Irish whiskey, green peppercorns and diced tomatoes was a fresh and piquant surprise.
At dinner the fish was distinctly better, the small whole coho salmon cooked so that its skin was crackling and its pink flesh firm but not dry, with an agreeable crab stuffing adding to its flavor. We also tried Lobster Savannah, cynically expecting the lobster to be ruined by fussiness. It was three lobster halves (at $18.95 for an enormous serving) stuffed with diced lobster that had been tossed with a restrained cheese sauce and too much diced celery. Although some of the lobster (perhaps that extra half) was disappointing, most of it was good shellfish, and the sauce did not overwhelm it. (In fact, it was far better than the famous -- and overdressed -- version of Lobster Savannah at Locke Ober restaurant in Boston.) Rack of lamb was excellent, well trimmed and cooked as rare as requested yet crusty. What's more, the main dishes at dinner came with fat asparagus, fresh and firm, and oven-browned potato wedges that did Ireland's potato heritage proud.
Thus, a meal can be straightforwardly good at The Powerscourt, and though the wine list is fairly short, it is not unduly expensive. For dessert, I'd suggest ignoring the stolid pastries and even the Irish cream mousse, whose flavor is more pleasant than its stiff and fatty texture. Instead, celebrate Irishness with a good old-fashioned Irish coffee.
The Powerscourt is neither original nor outstanding enough to breathe new life into Capitol Hill nights. But it is worth knowing about when you are on the Hill and want a quiet and gracious restaurant with food that is familiar, and don't mind paying a substantial price for that uncomplicated satisfaction.