** (2 stars) Blue Gin
1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW (Near M Street)
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight; upstairs open Thursday through Saturday only. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: small plates $10 to $18. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.
* (1 star) Cloud Dining Lounge
1 Dupont Circle NW (at New Hampshire Avenue)
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 4:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4:30 p.m. to midnight; for brunch Sunday noon to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations required Thursday through Sunday. Separate smoking area. Metro: Dupont Circle. Valet parking available Tuesday through Saturday after 5:30 p.m. Prices: tapas $3.50 to $15.95, dinner entrees $17.95 to $18.95; fixed-price Sunday brunch $21.95 per person. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $55 per person.
The bar for bars keeps getting higher.
If you've been paying any attention to all the new watering holes that have sprung up around the area in the past year or so, you'll know that it's no longer enough for a business to put out some salted nuts and pour a decent cosmopolitan. In a trend ignited by boutique hotels and fanned by seemingly every other new place to eat -- Tallula in Arlington, IndeBleu in Washington -- restaurateurs know they need to have a few tricks up their sleeves to distinguish themselves. Recently, I sipped and snacked my way through the menus at two of the latest to join the pack.
"All our drinks are really good," my server at Blue Gin announces as she sees a friend and me studying a long list of cocktails. "We make them with fresh fruit purees."
It's early on a Saturday night, which is the best time for someone who is more interested in refueling than in mating to land in this sleek, two-floor lounge in Georgetown. Tucked away in an alley off the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, in what used to be the sports bar Champions, Blue Gin reminds me of the stylish bars of London, Berlin and Zurich.
The ground floor, with its low ceilings and small dance floor, is pleasant enough, but upstairs is better. Here's where you'll find windows -- a bank of them looking onto an exterior wall that doubles as a screen for movies projected from inside -- and low leather couches that encourage you to slouch. The light fixtures look like fireworks sprays; the floor of a second, more intimate bar is paved in transparent glass blocks that allow patrons sitting there (voyeur alert!) to observe the flow of human traffic at Blue Gin's entrance.
This emphasis on looks does not take away from the quality of the small menu, a collection of about a dozen appetizer-size dishes executed by chef John Hill. Most of the food is threaded on skewers or served bite-size, perfect for sharing with friends and eating with your fingers. Greaseless spring rolls contain rich bites of lobster; a quick dip in the accompanying Thai chili sauce sets off a dance between sweet and hot, crisp and soft. Only slightly bigger than thimbles, crab cakes are capped in pesto and bread crumbs and presented with a puckery salad of shaved fennel. Skirt steak massaged with cumin and lime and wrapped around a thin skewer is one of a few dishes that come with fun, ribbonlike potato chips that don't last long.
A little research on the part of the kitchen could improve both the "lemon and garlic crusted" shrimp, which seems to be missing its garlic, and the tasty grilled lamb and onions in pita bread, which is too hard to eat on Blue Gin's magazine-size
tables. Slips such as those are somehow easier to digest when you've got a good drink in your hand (make mine Grey Goose vodka and passion fruit) and a woman who could pass for a model mixing it at the bar.
To eat and drink at Cloud on Dupont Circle is to be reminded of how many trends have rolled onto the dining landscape in recent years. For his latest venture, restaurateur Savino Recine, who closed Savino's Cafe & Lounge last year to redesign the space as a hip vision in white, packs in more fashions than the September issue of Vogue.
See the communal table? Notice the epic tapas menu? The roster of cocktails is up to the minute, too, with litchi martinis and blood orange cosmos. Now and then, the restaurateur entertains his guests with card tricks and other magic.
Beyond the main bar and dining room awaits a sunken lounge with white leather "beds" for really unwinding. Indeed, for an extra $10 a person at brunch ("Pajama
attire encouraged!" screams a restaurant flier), weekend revelers can recline as they break their fast. While I've never actually witnessed anyone eating in this neck of the restaurant, I've watched plenty of diners stroll over to check it out, much as visitors to the zoo approach an exotic display.
Those who have come to Cloud to graze as well as gaze will find a world of choices. Chef Vincente Torres -- one of the few ingredients in Savino's Cafe to carry over here -- looks just about everywhere for inspiration. From Spain come serrano ham and manchego cheese. Thailand is represented, quite respectably, by a zippy green curry chicken. Fried plantains with cilantro-garlic dip is an idea plucked from south of the border. Altogether, the kitchen offers about 50 hot and cold small plates.
There are some really pleasant moments. Lamb threaded on skewers proves nice and moist, enhanced by a dark tamarind sauce and sweet onions. Velvety roasted red piquillo peppers release a rivulet of warm goat cheese at the touch of a fork; the smoke of the vegetable and the tang of the cheese contrast nicely with sweet white raisins. Pureed spinach is partnered with soft chickpeas and spiked with chilies for a dish to please any vegetarians at the table.
But Cloud is no Jaleo or Zaytinya, the city's first-class purveyors of small plates. Cloud's barbecued shrimp are good by themselves, but they're served with an avocado dip that tastes as if it had been poured from a jar. A Caesar salad has zero anchovy flavor and what smacks of Miracle Whip in its overthick dressing. And a dish of hummus contains raw bits of garlic. When I start to look around, I notice a few other things that diminish dinner here. Foil-wrapped butter looks out of place in this clubby venue, and the selection of wines by the glass approaches that of your typical frat party.
Recine is a dapper, hospitable and ubiquitous host, eager to know what you think of his playground and to show off its charms, which are multiple. I only wish the cooking got as much attention as all the gimmicks.
"Is it my imagination," asks Richard Armstrong, "or am I seeing more and more restaurants where the waiters don't seem to know (or care) that you're not supposed to bring out the second course until the diner has finished the first?" The Glover Park reader continues in an e-mail: "This is bad enough when it happens at a downscale American restaurant where you get your cheeseburger before you've finished your chicken wings. But it really burns me up when it happens at a nice French or Italian restaurant." To avoid the problem, he says, "I've actually started ordering my courses one at a time. Do you have any better ideas, Tom?" One move that has worked for me is to let my server know, right from the start, that I'm looking forward to a leisurely meal and don't wish to be rushed -- a request that is then, I hope, communicated to the kitchen.
Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.