Downtown Washington, the city's mecca for power lunchers, embraces a number of restaurants that have built their reputations on offering big meals to big names for big bucks. But The Monocle remains the sole outpost for Hillites in search of a haunt.
And what a venerable haunt it is. After 25 years of catering to the appetites of politicos from the Kennedy administration on, The Monocle appears to have aged rather gracefully. Its two handsome main dining rooms -- one decorated with upholstered booths, little table lanterns, and a working hearth, the other sharing space with the bar -- are clubby and refined without being stiff. Warm, masculine tones reflect this restaurant's heritage.
A word of caution: This is one place you don't want to be without a reservation. Dinner is likely to be a relaxed affair, with piano music in the background on weekends. But lunch traffic resembles rush hour on the Beltway, as lawyers, lobbyists and congressional aides gather to break bread and do business. Indeed, at peak hours, it looks more Brooks Brothers showroom than restaurant.
Despite its popularity, service at The Monocle is quick and accommodating, professional and saavy.
Lunch and dinner appetizers consist mainly of seafood -- clams casino, smoked salmon, shrimp and crab meat cocktails, escargots in mushroom caps -- and soups of seafood bisque, french onion, and chilled gazpacho. The bisque may come as something of a surprise if what you had in mind was a thick, creamy seafood stew: The Monocle's rendition is a gentle, filling soup, thin and somewhat gelatinous, but bolstered by tender chunks of fish and lots of flavor.
One might assume salads would take a back seat in this steak-and-potatoes setting, but they have been rather nice presentations. The Paradise salad is basically a glorified dinner salad, with romaine lettuce, sliced mushrooms, artichokes and avocado tossed with an agreeable, garlicky vinaigrette. At lunch, my dining companion and I opted to split the Marco Polo as an appetizer. Pasta salads have become rather standard fare, but this one was a pleasant surprise, a plateful of tortellini stuffed with nicely seasoned ground veal, sauced in a fragrant and zippy basil-and-oil dressing and supported by an abundance of fresh broccoli, slices of Spanish onion and tomato.
Dinner entrees are by and large hefty productions, emphasizing fish and meats, such as filet mignon, London broil and lamb chops, with a few lighter dishes tucked in for variety. Fish has proven the most successful. At dinner, the poached salmon was a hit, a large fillet in a complementary crab sauce, sprinkled with chopped fresh parsley. Less appealing were the accompaniments: lifeless spears of overcooked broccoli and a baked potato that would have been fine had it been washed before cooking. (It was gritty.) A crab cake platter boasted two small, crusty-surfaced patties, plumped with lots of crab, yet its accompaniments were almost better than the main attraction: thick, golden fries and a paltry dab of some very good coleslaw.
Shrimp and sea scallops Marucca had two shrimp -- hardly enough to qualify as plural -- but the succulent, oceany scallops proved plentiful and better tasting.
Desserts, we were told, are all homemade, "except for the strawberries, we don't have a tree here," said our waiter, who proceeded to list rice pudding, ice cream and several exceedingly rich sounding pies. One of those sampled, amaretto cheesecake, was as much liquor as cream cheese it seemed, a sturdy confection in a graham cracker crust, sprinkled with sliced almonds. It was a fine production for those who prefer eating, as opposed to drinking, their cordials.
In sum, The Monocle is as much a meeting hall as an eating hall, but it's capable of turning out some pretty good meals in the process. And in terms of food and fans, it stands up well against its downtown competition.