- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ethan McKee, executive chef at Circle Bistro in One Washington Circle Hotel, is a born matchmaker, matching with the enthusiasm of Dolly Levi. He matches, or pairs, vegetables, not the lonely of heart. But who’s to say that a crab cake can’t find romance in his kitchen with a fried green tomato?

Succotash is paired with smoked bacon. Fried oysters are enclosed in a potato crust and served with a small mache salad and bacon-chive creme fraiche. A creamy corn soup is enlivened with a little jalapeno pepper, crab and shrimp. More classically French is a vol au vent of snails and chanterelle mushrooms in garlic butter. These thoughtful pairings make a meal interesting and memorable.

Circle Bistro offers a combination of French and contemporary American dishes. Mr. McKee’s dishes, while not superspiced, are lively. The beet salad is a sprightly mix of red beets, slivers of goat cheese, golden raisins and walnuts, topped with arugula and moistened with an excellent vinaigrette. It’s one of the city’s best versions of this ubiquitous starter.

A special appetizer at a recent dinner was a dish of three small, plump ravioli filled with minced lobster meat in a lobster-bisque-like sauce. The dish was almost too delicate and could have used a little more character, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

Main courses are primarily fish, with just two meat dishes on the menu - a lamb rib-eye with ratatouille and a grilled flatiron steak. The steak, although cooked exactly to order, was a bit tough and lacked flavor. The mix of chanterelles, grape tomatoes and fingerling potatoes in a red-wine sauce is a delicious side served with the beef.

Dishes from sea and stream include sesame-crusted swordfish; Idaho trout; wild halibut; salmon; and black tagliatelle with shrimp, clams and Italian sausage. As with the appetizers, each main course is nicely paired with vegetable combinations.

The salmon was grilled exactly as ordered and was served with French beans, nicely cooked and not too crunchy, and sliced mushrooms in a little lemon-dill butter sauce. The fish was fresh and beautifully prepared. The waitress assured us it was wild Alaskan sockeye, but it lacked the taste of the sea prevalent in wild salmon.

The lunch menu is similar to the dinner menu except that main courses are less expensive. At lunch, roast chicken, a hamburger and pan-seared diver scallops are added. There’s a three-course prix-fixe lunch menu for $20 and a pre-theater menu for $35, available from 5 to 7 p.m.

The house special dessert is a brownie sundae with espresso ice cream and candied walnuts. Crumbles reflect the fruits of the season. The cream-cheese napoleon turned out to be a tasty combination of crisp phyllo pastry, creamy mascarpone and cherries.

The wine list is limited, but wines are presented from around the world, with several good offerings by the glass. Prosecco and champagne are also available by the glass.

Mr. McKee offers his guests a tiny glass of delicious, creamy tomato gazpacho as a mini starter, which, together with the wonderfully fresh and chewy bread, set the mood for a fine meal. At the end comes a little dark-chocolate-orange sweet with coffee. They’re appreciated grace notes.

The only drawback to dining at Circle Bistro is the narrow, angular shape of the room. A boisterous large party, for example, can overwhelm the dining room. The decor is bright and orange, the ceiling low, and the space doesn’t lend itself to coziness. But there’s no thump-thump-thump of music. The open bar and lounge area are inviting to sippers and diners, with a bar menu of light fare. The patio next to the hotel’s swimming pool is open for lunch and dinner, weather permitting.

RESTAURANT:Circle Bistro at One Washington Circle Hotel, 1 Washington Circle NW, 202/293-5390

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $15; main courses $14 to $19 (lunch), $23 to $28 (dinner); desserts $6 to $8

PARKING: Street parking; complimentary valet parking for lunch or dinner

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Foggy Bottom

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