Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., dinner Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., dinner Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. AE, CB, Choice, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: for lunch, appetizers $3.75 to $8.50, entrees $7.50 to $12.50, desserts $3.75 to $5.50; for dinner, appetizers $4 to $12.50, entrees $8.75 to $19.50, desserts $3.50 to $5.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 to $60 a person.
Washington isn't New York, and Windows isn't New York's Windows on the World. Thank goodness. This Windows, in the USA Today Building's Twin Towers, doesn't have the skyscraper view that the Manhattan restaurant does; it is only a few floors up, and its sweeping window wall catches as much highway as waterway. Nor does it have the Manhattan restaurant's famous wine list, buffet or festivities. But Washington's Windows is a first-class New American restaurant (California cuisine, they call it), extravagantly beautiful and ambitious without being haughty.
What strikes one first is the space. Tables are arranged for discreet conversation and capacious eating, with a sweeping view of the room as well as the waterfront (though admittedly one would prefer a window table). The room, though, is a view in itself. It looks like the Elizabeth Arden of restaurants, with soft pale nail polish colors and surfaces as shiny as lacquer. The restrained number of decorations -- paintings, flower arrangements -- is large and with the importance of a museum display.
Every bit as much flair and thought went into the menu and onto the plate. The chef, Henry Dinardo, was at The Broker and Design Cuisine caterers and clearly has been watching new American trends, mesquite grilling and pizza-making among them. Chickens are farm raised, vegetables are miniatures (string-thin carrots, marble- size turnips, hair-thin beans, for example), and garnishes are lacy gaufrette potatoes, pickled cherries or multihued lettuces.
To start, look for a special of vegetable terrine with caviar vinaigrette, the terrine wrapped in dark green leek leaves and layered with tiny bits of vegetable, lobster and salmon. It tastes richly tangy, far from the usual bland vegetable terrine. The terrine of foie gras is more simply lovely, and appropriately lets the foie gras taste of itself, with only faint seasoning and a dose of armagnac. Even better was a foie gras terrine surrounded with five kinds of mushrooms. Crab and scallop bisque hits the right level of flavor, evading the blandness creamy seafood soups fall prey to, and with beautifully cooked seafood afloat. And a special of supple, juicy smoked duck tasted sufficiently of duck and of smoke -- just short of hamminess.
Appetizers, though, show flaws seldom found among the main courses, though they are generally spectacular designs. The saut,eed foie gras, for instance, would be perfect but its beautiful raspberry sauce tasted like dessert -- too sweet and too intense. Baby artichokes stuffed with salmon mousse and enclosed in rolls of smoked salmon looked glorious on a bed of vinaigrette with hair-thin pepper strips and multicolor lettuce leaves, but the artichoke was fibrous and the mousse lacked flavor. Sometimes the garnishes are the best part, as with the red pepper salad accompanying a smoked tuna. And the tropical vinaigrette with the grilled smoked salmon was delightful, although the salmon itself tasted too intensely salty.
Sauces are a strength of this kitchen, whether vinaigrettes (of dill, caviar, lemon-chive, raspberry, sherry-mustard or champagne-papaya), beurre blancs or wine sauces. The fruity ones sometimes lack balance, as with the orange and almond butter on the swordfish or that raspberry sauce for foie gras.
Still, the basic cooking is exceptional. The swordfish is astonishingly good, with a clear and true taste, mesquite grilled lightly so that it is soft and pink but not raw inside. The mesquite in this case highlights rather than eclipses the flavor. Salmon and tuna have also been faultless, though not the stars the swordfish is. Equally extraordinary is the rack of lamb, first thoroughly trimmed of fat, marinated in rosemary and oil, seared on mesquite, then roasted slowly so that it is evenly rare straight through, as well as tender, supple and moist. Venison is also exceptional, the thick medallion seared crusty to seal in the juices. Its sauce was an example of Dinardo's high art, for it was dark and rich without being overreduced, still light and glossy. With it was an apple poached in zinfandel and stuffed with crusty, caramelized roasted chestnuts. Another intriguing sauce accompanied the duck breast: blood orange, faintly sweet and quite deep in color and flavor.
With all this delight, though, come some disappointments. Veal seems to be this kitchen's downfall. The grilled loin with wild mushrooms had fine texture but the mushroom m,elange and sauce fell flat, as did veal scallops -- flimsy and overcooked -- with similarly overcooked foie gras and indifferent truffle sauce. Rabbit was dry and tasteless little nuggets of meat in cream and mustard sauce. Pastas are more controversial; I have found them flabby and too heavily sauced yet dull to the taste, whether spinach linguine with seafood or saffron pasta with crayfish or timbale of saffron and parsley pasta wrapping a mousse of turbot. Several of my companions relished them, but I'll save my pasta eating for elsewhere.
I've saved the best until last, though. The pizzas at Windows are delectable, with tender, yeasty and spongy yet well- browned crusts, and toppings such as seafood and two cheeses or sausage with caramelized onions, multicolored peppers and three cheeses -- not to mention specials of smoked duck or smoked salmon. There are also calzones stuffed with the likes of smoked duck, wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. They are worth the trip -- any trip. But they present a problem: does one eat them as a large appetizer or as a modest main course? At lunch, main course is suggested. They make fine bar fare (and Windows' lounge-with-a-view is already very crowded). At dinner they serve well as a shared appetizer, albeit a fairly heavy one. Still, don't miss them.
The restaurant also makes its own french rolls and serves them with tomato-basil and plain butters. Its wine list is quite good, with admirable wines by the glass and a long list of bottles -- a $20 range yields wines worthy of the food.
Desserts are visually exceptional but need work, for they are typically too sweet and lack flavor. Best have been raspberry chocolate torte, lemon tart, strawberry ice cream, the caramel sauce on the pear tart and crave been the chocolate truffles, layered two-color chocolates and chocolate-dipped strawberries brought with very good coffee.
Service has been well polished and impressively smooth for a new restaurant, but since my last visit there has been a change in dining room management, so I leave service as a question mark.
So far Windows has been on a trajectory heading straight for the stars. We'll be watching for it to stay on course.