The bowl before me harbors a quiet wonder: white beets transformed into an ivory soup that is more custard than liquid, its surface set off with a small oval of goat cheese and a dusting of pine nuts. Brightened with fresh mint, the dish looks like something you’d see in a place where the tables wear linens.
Except that I’m not in a restaurant per se, but a bar. Less than a year ago, I was hunched over roasted tomato soup and lomo saltado at Bar Pilar , the playful kid brother to the more assured Cafe Saint-Ex in Logan Circle. Apparently, not enough of us were gravitating to the stools at Pilar, because its game plan changed in July. A chef from Cafe Atlantico, Joshua Whigham, was brought in to whip up small plates of Italian-inspired food. The wine list was beefed up. Overnight, comfort food was replaced by cool food.
Crowds followed. Even Monday nights can find diners standing cargo pants-to-khakis in the narrow, red brick and yellow-painted space named for Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat.
The let’s-all-share-our-tapas strategy is a crowd-pleaser, which makes Bar Pilar a good place to know about when you’re among a diverse group of grazers who don’t want to spend a fortune but want some variety with their cocktails (a tip: margaritas are better than mojitos here). The carnivore in me is happy to find juicy grilled pork loin paired with skin-on potatoes, red cabbage slaw and a dab of green sauce, while my inner vegetarian appreciates a bowl of brown lentils jazzed up with strips of apricot. There are salads with a point of view, too, including biting dandelion greens tossed with sweet plums. But the skimpy cheese plate, with its pinches and crumbles of three varieties, fails the charm test; its puddles of fruit sauces and rusk-like bread resemble leftovers from breakfast.
There’s no getting bored here, though, because the selections change from night to night. If you spot them, steer clear of the overly fishy anchovies atop bitter greens, but dive into the charred squid, tender and deliciously smoky. And take advantage of the wine list, a tightly edited page that looks to Europe for inspiration and brings together some excellent producers at affordable prices. Here’s your chance to try an Italian pinot noir ($8) or a Rhone chardonnay ($7) -- fun pours in a bar that looks old but thinks young.