THE COLONNADE Westin Hotel, 2401 M St. NW. 45-5000. Open: For breakfast seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner seven days a week, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Saturday for lunch. AE, V, MC, DC, Choice. Reservations suggested. Valet parking. Separate smoking area. Prices: At lunch appetizers $3 to $5.75, sandwiches and entrees $5.75 to $13.50 (not including daily specials); at dinner appetizers $3 to $6.25, entrees $14 to $21 (not including daily specials). Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 to $45 a person.
PEOPLE DON'T COME RIGHT OUT and ask to be directed to a lovely restaurant where the food is innocuous, but sometimes that is exactly what they want.
I'd send them to the Colonnade.
Admittedly there are plenty of lovely restaurants where the food isn't noteworthy, but there are few restaurants so grand and pretty as the Colonnade.
It looks like a sun porch. It looks like a party. It looks like the perfect place for a champagne cocktail or a ramos gin fizz, both of which are available. (There is also a bellini with peach juice, says the menu, but it turns out, disappointingly, to be made with peach brandy.)
The service has been every bit as grand and agreeable as the environment. Though the kitchen can be slow, the serving staff has been charming and personable.
So from the beginning the Colonnade looks like a winner. The menu lists intriguing inventions: oysters wrapped in smoked salmon, veal tenderloin with scampi and artichokes at dinner; salmon four ways or tournedos of veal with oyster pure'e at lunch, and there is a "fresh sheet" with the likes of gray sole stuffed with almond scallop mousse, veal scaloppine with butter mushrooms and madeira sauce. The wide range of dishes, the choice of half a dozen wines by the glass and outstanding french rolls add up to high expectations from the kitchen -- which were dashed with my first lunch, then somewhat retrieved at a dinner following.
At lunch it was hard to imagine that food sounding so good could taste so bad. Clam chowder could have been an upscale brand of canned soup perhaps doctored up, and a broccoli-shiitake soup had dulled those good ingredients. Other appetizers were better: Smoked sturgeon and caviar was a remarkable bargain at $5 until you tasted the salty lumpfish caviar; still, the sturgeon had a pleasant flavor though it was oddly pink and fatty. A warm pheasant salad with endive had too sweet a dressing, but the pheasant itself was gloriously juicy and flavorful.
Two main dishes were pleasant -- a bargain of a mixed grill with a slightly overcooked lamb chop and thin beef filet, a veal medallion and a slice of good liver. With it were delectable saute'ed potatoes with onions and an assortment of the baby vegetables. The four-salmon plate was also good, and at $8 also a bargain. Cold poached salmon stood out on the assortment, which included gravlax, smoked salmon and an underseasoned salmon tartare; but they were ill served by their two dressings -- a sweet honey vinegar salad dressing and plain old sour cream. Then there were some main-dish disasters: a dry, chewy grilled tuna, a gummy mess of a salmon in puff pastry and a horrendous sole stuffed with oddly sweet almond scallop mousse in an outlandish peppery peanut sauce. It had the distinction of being the worst dish I have tasted in recent memory.
I approached dinner warily, to say the least. This time each beautifully arranged plate was served under a silver dome. The first dish I tasted, seafood gumbo, was pallid and bland. But things began to look up. A warm salad of smoked salmon, duck and caviar was certainly all right, though that lumpfish caviar is silly in a serious restaurant. The pheasant galantine was a nice combination of textures and pleasant if mild in flavor, and it came with several zesty marinated salads. Eggplant crepes -- slices of eggplant rolled around a minced mushroom filling -- were nice, as was a homey seafood roulade wrapped in phyllo. The crab cakes had too much filler and were of shredded rather than lump crab, but benefited from careful seasoning and frying in butter. They were upstaged, though, by a harsh tomato sauce.
The best advice I can offer for a visit to the Colonnade is to order the good plain meat and skip the fish dishes. Lamb medallions lacked juiciness, and the meat was coarse but well trimmed and cooked and nicely dressed with coriander butter. Chicken breast was beautifully grilled -- crusty and smoky -- with a faintly sweet chardonnay sauce. And veal, in thick medallions, was excellent meat cooked to bring out its delicate flavor and texture, made even more delicious by garnishes of a jumbo shrimp, a custardlike golden sauce and a well-trimmed and perfectly cooked artichoke bottom. But monkfish and scallops were bland -- a step up from the fish at lunch but neutral rather than flavorful.
Desserts include beautiful but disappointing pastries and some intensely fruity sherbets. The most interesting ending, though, is coffee. You have a choice of eight fresh-ground coffees, from Jamaica Blue Mountain to French Roast Decaffeinated, brewed in individual pots at the table, and accompanied by a choice of several sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, grated chocolate or lemon peel. Even the teas are presented for you to choose from a magnificent wooden box.
The set is spectacular at the Colonnade. And if you choose your meat so as not to tax a kitchen that tends to overreach its capabilities, it is likely to add up to a happy ending.