Circle Bistro

In the One Washington Circle Hotel, 1 Washington Circle NW (at New Hampshire Avenue). 202-293-5390

Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10 a.m.,

Saturday and Sunday 8 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Smoking in bar area only. Metro: Foggy Bottom-GWU. Valet parking. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $7,

entrees $8 to $19; dinner appetizers $5 to $9, entrees $15 to $22.

Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $45 to $60 per person.

At last check, Washington could count more than 27,000 hotel rooms. Filling them in uncertain times is a seller's challenge and a buyer's delight; much as a discriminating traveler wants a good deal on a bed, he or she also looks for details that separate one hotel from another, be it the size of its rooms or the thread count of its linens.

Food divides the memorable from the middling, too. But serving adventurous food in a hotel dining room is easier to talk about than to pull off. Unlike free-standing restaurants, hotel kitchens have to juggle room service, banquets and an unpredictable clientele whose tastes run from A to Z. Given

the risk of offending anyone, a lot of places opt to play it safe.

Circle Bistro, which recently took the place of the West End Cafe, does not look or taste as if it had been designed by a committee at some distant corporate headquarters. Certainly, it was a tough space to refashion, with low ceilings, an odd entrance and small rooms that shoot off in different directions, like spokes on a wheel. But the architect has helped us forget all that with clever lighting and a soothing palette of soft orange and yellow. The bar is particularly attractive, set off with a raised table for communal sipping and a small fireplace in one cozy corner. "Popcorn?" a waitress offers, easing me and my friends into an early Sunday evening with two overflowing paper cones in a metal holder.

When we move to a table in one of the dining rooms, instead of the ubiquitous bread basket come more of those paper cones, filled this time with fritto misto -- cleanly fried potatoes, squid, chicken and zucchini with a quartet of enticing dips: malt vinegar, Hawaiian sea salt, tartar sauce, and ketchup brightened with fresh pineapple. In the opening days, the portions were so generous that diners tended to skip ordering appetizers; these days, the fritto misto does what this kind of treat from the kitchen should do -- it whets your appetite for more.

The man behind this and other appealing ideas is George Vetsch, whose cooking you may have tasted at his short-lived restaurant, George, or later at the Oval Room or at Wazuri, where the Swiss-born chef consulted on the refined African menu. In his current roost, Vetsch offers the expected hotel restaurant options -- there is a Caesar salad, of course, and steak -- along with choices that show a sense of adventure. Not everything succeeds, but the selections pack in plenty of personality.

Here is the rare restaurant that does better with main courses than with appetizers. Calamari simply seasoned with pepper makes for first-class munching, but why would you order fried squid after that fritto misto? The Caesar salad combines whole spears of romaine lettuce with a spirited dressing, but with julienned vegetables atop its big croutons, it's a tad overdone. A bouillabaisse scaled down to appetizer size has a boring broth (despite its coconut milk and cilantro accents), but it doesn't miss the target quite as badly as agnolotti stuffed with a vapid mush of Jerusalem artichoke, mushroom and goat cheese and undercooked so that the edges of the pasta are still chewy.

So how to begin? With creamy onion soup enriched with Asiago cheese and beer, or a green salad with a spunky dressing based on harissa, the blazing Middle Eastern chili paste.

There are several distinguished performances among the entrees. One brings together luscious bites of veal cheeks, pillows of lemony rice, a gentle curry and slices of grilled tropical fruit. Another dish I'd like to try again is guinea hen, served with crisp haricots verts mixed with soft onions and bits of bacon. Fresh herbs and butter, slipped beneath skin roasted to a gentle crisp, make for a hen to remember. The rib-eye bursts with savor from its marinade of juniper berries, lemon and bay leaf; lusty slices of the meat are arranged over wilted Swiss chard, littered with tiny garlic chips, and accompanied by a cone of Vetsch's hot french fries. Even that old standby rare seared tuna is notches above much of the competition, with its subtle Thai seasoning and jazzy salad of radishes, pear, cashews and blue cheese. And for those not inclined to eat meat, there is a baked phyllo strudel, fat with eggplant, squash and more. It is one of several dishes featured on the three-course "pre-theater" menu for $28, available from 5 p.m. until closing.

A few main courses need only a tweak to elevate them. Much as I like food that dances between sweet and savory, Circle Bistro's Moroccan-themed lamb bedded on couscous with figs and fried plantains veers too close to dessert for my taste.

Vetsch's cooking gets a worthy companion in the restaurant's wine list. Instead of foisting marquee names and hefty prices on customers, the way so many hotels do, this small, French-leaning selection includes wines that not only pair well with the food but are priced to encourage testing: For $26, why not try a bottle from Uruguay? Prices by the glass, meanwhile, hover around $6.

Desserts are all over the map. A restaurant is practically obligated to offer creme brulee, and Circle Bistro's vanilla version is perfectly fine. Bread pudding also seems almost mandatory, but unless you favor dry croutons dusted with shavings of chocolate, don't bother with the misguided concoction here. I like the hot, sugar-dusted apple beignets, though. The tall milkshake, which evokes a '50s diner (take your pick from vanilla, chocolate or strawberry), doesn't really belong on this menu, but that didn't prevent my friends and me from competing for turns at the glass with our straws -- and looking forward to a reunion here.

Ask Tom

Jeanette Guy says she doesn't want to be reminded of housework when she's eating out. Specifically, the Baltimore reader wrote me to complain about her distaste for restaurants whose staffs use counter sprays to clean their tables. "They don't just wipe it down with a cloth, they SPRAYSPRAYSPRAY the table . . . so that the mist drifts into the air and envelops my olfactory senses." The result, in her experience: "eggs Benedict with Windex hollandaise, Southwest chicken salad with 409 dressing, or filet mignon marinated in Glass Plus." Having endured similar trigger assaults myself, I sympathize, and wonder: What happened to hot water and strong soap?

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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