AQUARELLE -- WATERGATE HOTEL, 2650 VIRGINIA AVE. NW. 202-298-4455. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner daily 5 to 10 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking area closed on weekends. Prices: lunch appetizers $8 to $15, entrees $20 to $28; dinner appetizers $9 to $18, entrees $22 to $32. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $60 to $90 per person.
On the cusp of the 21st century, the Watergate has returned to the past. The hotel is redecorating, and in a style that promises to evoke the 19th century. The hotel's restaurant, Aquarelle, has also been given a face lift, one that harks back to the Watergate's earliest days; it's an indoor illusion of a garden, with painted green ivy and white trellises winding up the central columns. The new look of this oddly shaped dining room is not distracting, it's not offensive, it's not challenging or threatening or controversial. What is it? It's restful.
It's also nothing like the food for which it is the background.
The cooking at Aquarelle is the work of Jacques Van Staden, who honed his skills in the kitchens of this very hotel under Jean-Louis Palladin, then went to Lespinasse, and later opened Cafe Ole in Tenleytown. He's a chef with considerable imagination and style. In fact, his food is so beautiful that it could draw attention away from the panorama of the Potomac outside the windows. The food is the view.
Van Staden's ingredients are almost always prime, his cooking is creative and precise, and his presentation is stunning. Nevertheless, it raises the question that continually plagues an elaborate restaurant: What makes a meal worth almost $200 a couple? That's what you'll pay unless you're in time for the pre-theater menu or you order the most modest dishes. And given that the wine list is heavy on the upper end and the menu includes caviar, it would be easy to spend more.
When I dine that extravagantly, I'm looking for a certain magic. Is it too much to ask that the food taste as glorious as it looks, that the flavors be as memorable as the colors and shapes? At least I want to leave with a mental list of dishes I can't wait to try again.
I did leave humming the praises of Van Staden's risotto. It balanced creaminess with the slight resistance of perfectly cooked arborio rice and the crispness of pencil-thin asparagus and bits of carrot. The alchemy that transformed this rice into gold was the aroma of truffle intensified by dark jus of wild mushrooms. In the summer, soft-shell crabs looked dazzling, cradled in a basket formed from an Indian pappadum, and they were as delicious as they looked. Roast chicken was as crisp-skinned and juicy as it should be, in a garden of bright and wonderful baby vegetables, nothing fussy but exactly right.
On the fall menu, an appetizer of grilled quail with the tang of tamarind also tastes as glamorous as it looks, though the jewels of diced beet are remarkably flavorless. A sirloin steak is a magnificent construction of crosshatched, thickly sliced meat, along with a log cabin of grilled fingerling potatoes, but it is the ragout of mushrooms that makes this dish. Likewise, a dry and bland breast of guinea hen is rescued by a ballotine of dark meat and foie gras wrapped in browned skin.
Some dishes come close to magnificence. A daube of beef is a mass of soft, dark shreds as rich and earthy as loam, hidden under a thick layer of celery root puree and studded with pickled beets. But why the caramelized sugar glaze that turns it into a creme brulee? The sweetness is jarring. Seafood bisque is nothing like what you'd expect from the name. Rather than being hearty, it's a pool of foamy lemon-ginger emulsion centered by a small bouquet of tiny cockles, mussels and oysters, and unfortunately threatened by large, iodiney shrimp and big, bland scallops.
Foams are Van Staden's signature of the moment. His corn soup and his parsnip cappuccino are both froths. Despite such hidden treasures as mussels with the corn and spiced duck confit and foie gras mousse with the parsnip, the flavors of these aerated broths are elusive and their sweetness prominent. Foie gras emulsion laps at the entree of guinea hen, but it, too, has a meek character. When you fluff up such delicate liquids, their taste all too easily disappears.
And, as in the seafood bisque, Aquarelle's sumptuous-sounding shellfish sometimes goes awry. I can hardly imagine a more exciting prospect than a sea urchin and oyster gratin with caviar and crisped prosciutto. So my dismay over this bitter, dry-edged concoction was extreme. It overshadowed my disappointment at the veal osso buco, swathed in a thick spackle that tasted like ketchupy barbecue sauce without the chilies.
Dessert hasn't tended to sweeten my reactions. Except for a scrumptious late-summer peach tarte Tatin, desserts have been gorgeous and soulless. Chocolate Passion tasted like yesterday's love affair, coconut blancmange could have been made of plastic, and a banana and chocolate monument used underripe fruit and overweight cake.
Van Staden's menu is showoff food, each dish so cunningly constructed that I could imagine it being prepared merely for a photo shoot. When its balance is off, its flavor is listless, its sugar content disconcerting, I'm tempted to send a message to the chef: "Lick your fingers."
And to the manager I want to say, "Who's in charge?" The waiters try hard, but there is no apparent leadership. An evening becomes a series of awkward moments when there's nobody at the front desk, the servers don't know who's getting which plate, staff members talk to each other from across the dining room. It's hard to find somebody who knows much about the wine list, which is an odd assortment in a
helter-skelter order that ends with white wines rather than reds. And surely when your osso buco plate centers on a marrow bone, someone should think to
offer you a utensil more suitable than a steak knife for probing it.
Jacques Van Staden is cooking dishes in a style all his own. He's venturing into new territory. He combines sumac and white asparagus with salmon. His vegetarian plate is embellished with celeriac sauce. He serves lamb as a pot au feu. The man is full of intriguing ideas. So far, he's trying them out mostly on the Watergate Hotel's captive audience. Soon, I hope, they'll be ready for all of Washington.
Cellar Chauvinists: Does sexism still lurk around the wine cellar? One evening I arrived at Aquarelle before my guest and chose to wait at the table. The host ushered me to my chair and placed a menu on my plate. On the plate of my absent guest he put a menu and the wine list. Surely he didn't think I was too young to drink.
Uncommon Language: In the old days, French menus here were written in French. Eventually restaurateurs began accommodating their American diners by translating each dish into English underneath the French. Lespinasse has added a new twist: Its menu is now in English, with each dish translated into French. Perhaps the chef wanted to show us how much he's learned since he arrived here from France last year. -- P.C.R.