FLUTES -- 1025 Thomas Jefferson St. NW. 333-7333. Open: Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., Saturday 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested for groups of six or more. No separate non-smoking section. Complimentary parking. Prices: plates $12.50 to $18.50; caviars $24 to $80; desserts $6.50 to $8.
Ah, romance. An evening after the theater, walking along the banks of the Potomac. An evening that deserves to be remembered and celebrated.
Ah, Flutes. Designed for romance. Softly lit and softly furnished. Draped and swagged and sparkling. A setting for champagne.
And so you wander in for a toast, a sip. The dance floor holds maybe one couple, very intent on each other. The candle on your table casts an intimate glow. The deep carpet muffles the voices from other tables, and you are alone, at least so far as a public place can allow.
And the waiter is French, a Frenchman who knows his champagnes. Nearly a hundred bubblies are presented on the menu, and even the choice of half a dozen by the glass is daunting. So the waiter probes your preferences and guides you, perhaps spinning a tale of the history of the champagne you choose. He opens it with a graceful poof rather than a garish pop and pours it into the tallest and thinnest and most graceful of flutes, the perfect glass for champagne.
At Flutes, champagne is clearly the focus, occupying the first four pages of the menu. It is followed by still wines and after-dinner drinks and, only then, food.
The food occupies only two pages, one for "amuse-bouches," which are savory choices halfway between appetizers and main courses, and the other for "nos de'lectables," desserts.
The "menu concepts" are by Henry Dinardo, the chef at Windows in Rosslyn, the menu says. And his mark is certainly on the dishes. On the standing menu (which we've been told is going to change somewhat), there are eight savory choices plus caviars.
To start with the caviar, it is served in full dress, nestled in ice and accompanied by lemon, chopped egg and chopped onion on a compartmented plate made for such things. The caviar is spread out on its little dish as if that ounce is trying to look like $36 worth of beluga (ossetra is $26, sevruga $24 and a trio $80). There is nothing to fault here: fine caviar, well served. Costly, as such gems are.
If such luxurious simplicity isn't all the romance you need, the menu holds more intriguing complications. Without meaning to jar your champagne mood, pizza and pasta are what you should pursue. The pizza -- dinner-plate size -- has Dinardo's celebrated puffy, light crust topped by smoked Norwegian salmon, ossetra caviar, buffalo mozzarella, goat cheese, cre`me fraiche and chives. One night the waiter also announced a special of sausage pizza, but then told us the kitchen was out of it. Another dish that was spectacularly good was snails, eight of them wrapped in pieces of chicken breast and served on rounds of brioche flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, then topped with a tart, tangy herb-and-garlic butter. The brioche, heavy and soggy from the butter sauce, was irrelevant, but the snails and chicken were stellar. Unfortunately, the next time I visited, the kitchen was out of this, too.
So that leaves the pastas as next-best choices. A frequent special that will probably make the standing menu is called shrimp ravioli, but that is like calling caviar fish eggs. The ravioli dough encloses a whole jumbo shrimp with the tail sticking out like a handle. The shrimp are swathed in lobster mousse, the whole topped with a tangle of finely julienned vegetables and a creamy, buttery, delicate basil sauce. The dough is thick, more like Chinese dumplings than like Italian ravioli, but it is a good vehicle for the sauce. Similarly, the tortellini, filled with minced lobster and ricotta and napped with brandied lobster sauce flecked with lobster roe, is thick in the dough wrapper but not to its detriment.
The rest of the savory choices are cold. A smoked-fish assortment is served with a cunning garnish of tiny vegetable canisters stuffed with sprightly relishes and horseradish whipped cream. The smoked salmon is magnificent, folded to make the petals of a flower, and there is also good smoked tuna and trout, but the tiny bits of relish are the stars. You can order a platter of shrimp with avocado, tomato and calypso sauce. And there is a cheese plate with tropical fruits. Belon oysters are available, but I would ask for them plain with just their caviar garnish rather than overwhelmed as they usually are by vodka, lemon and tomato salsa. Finally, there is pa~te' de foie gras and chicken livers. Smooth and fine as it is, the pa~te' is overwhelmed by brandy and madeira. It too is accompanied by that charming array of tiny stuffed vegetable canisters. Garnishing is a fine art here.
Desserts raise this art to even finer degrees. Sauces are painted with sunbursts and/or fruity renditions of the aurora borealis. Black raspberries march like buttons up and down cake slices, fastened by rosettes of whipped cream. And if you think these desserts are too pretty to eat, trust your instincts. They look better than they taste. One day the cre`me bru~le'e was a classic, rich and thick and eggy, with a proper crunchy sugar crust. Another day it tasted more like bad cheesecake. Three-layer chocolate pa~te' was the most acceptable of the desserts. The others included a geometric beauty of white chocolate mousse that tasted like an anonymous fluff, a deliciously tart and fragrant grapefruit sorbet with the texture of crushed ice and cheesecake that was all right, but twice the price and half as good as others you might find around town. Chocolate truffles and the little pastries called friandises, served complimentary with coffee at many of the city's elegant restaurants, here cost $8.
Which brings us to the bursting of the bubbles. A bottle of champagne, with an amuse-bouche and a dessert each, will leave you and your mate lightly fed and happily treated -- and more than $100 poorer. Should you be so dashing as to order caviar or to look into the pricier champagnes, you could leave $200 on the table after your romantic snack.
Nobody considers Windows a bargain, but the same pizza is $4 less (at Flutes it is $18.50). And the Madison hotel is hardly penny-pinching, but it charges $5.75 for a glass of Domaine Chandon, the Park Hyatt's champagne bar charges $5, and Flutes gets $6.50 for it. The cheapest French champagne at Flutes is $35 a bottle; Jean-Louis has it for $28.
But clearly Flutes intends to do more than feed you. It was started by a public- health official and a clinical psychologist, as its press release stresses, and was designed to combat the daytime work world with "glamour and glitter," "magic and mystery." The question is whether Blue Cross would consider it therapy. ::