- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

New York has long had its trendy smaller hotels with bars that serve interesting food as well as cosmopolitans and martinis. Washington always plays a bit of catch-up but now we have our own version of the Royalton Hotel's Vodka Bar or the Paramount Whiskey Bar.
Topaz (blue not golden, despite the yellow awning) and red are the colors du jour. Topaz is the new name of the former Canterbury Hotel on N Street NW, down the block from the Tabard Inn. The elegant little basement Restaurant on N is gone. Instead, there's a bar a few steps up from the lobby with a separate entrance from the street.
Blue velvet walls and banquettes, cozy nooks, faux fur on the floor and on large square ottomans, sconce ights that change from fuchsia to blue to green, throbbing drumbeats and some of the most glamorous bartender-waitresses in town serving clients at the bar and at the eight or so little round tables. That's the look of Topaz, at once up-to-date and old-fashioned, slick yet comfortable.
Bar Rouge is in Topaz' sister Hotel Rouge on 16th Street NW, just above Scott Circle. Like Topaz, the Bar Rouge decor, primarily in brown and orange (the "rouge" enlivens upstairs hallways and attractively renovated bedrooms), includes lots of faux, some very high-backed armchairs, private corners and a tiny five-seat bar. It has an "in-your-face" atmosphere. Yet, like Topaz, it's a friendly place with an attractive and pleasant staff.
At 8:30 on a recent weekend night, just two weeks after it opened, Bar Rouge was throbbing with disco music and the hip black-leather crowd sipping all the trendy mixed drinks. No one was eating which is too bad, for these two newcomers aren't just bars. They are also imaginative and excellent restaurants.
The kitchens in both are under the talented hand of John Wabeck, formerly of New Heights restaurant. The menus in the two lounges, as they are called, are completely different Asian influence at Topaz, Southwestern at Bar Rouge. Each serves about a dozen different small dishes and three desserts. Everything we tried was delicious.
At Topaz, we began a light meal with a bowl of rich, thick squash soup garnished with a dab of sage scented cream and two slices of crisp fried ginger. It's a fine winter's treat and the ginger adds just the right touch of tartness.
Half a dozen shrimp and pork dumplings are served in truffle-scented broth with only the barest suggestion of truffle oil. The filling is subtle, slightly crunchy and delicious, although the edges of the dumpling skins weren't quite cooked through.
Soba noodles with a touch of sesame oil are topped with slices of smoked duck breast, bits of bok choy, orange slices and almonds a pleasing combination.
My companion called his Angus beef burger, topped with a slice of Cheddar cheese (unmelted), one of the best he has eaten in Washington. The burger comes with marvelously thin slices of fried potatoes (which could have been hotter) and a little pot of first-rate hollandaise. Only the dry, crumbly bun, although well buttered, was not satisfactory.
The menu's "ethereal eats" include smoked salmon sushi rice tart with portobello mushrooms; tuna and avocado tartare with harissa and jicama; crab salad and a stir fry of sea scallops with gingered grits and shiitake mushrooms a dish highly recommended by one of our two waitresses, neither of whom could have been more helpful, attentive, charming or accommodating. They don't even seem to mind when guests aren't 20- (or 30-) somethings.
A dessert of warm chocolate cake prepared to order was slightly overcooked but rich, tasty and the accompanying pale green pistachio ice cream is creamy and delicious.
Topaz has an interesting range of wines by the glass from $7 to $14, including a fine Napa Sterling Vineyards cabernet sauvignon and a nice light pinot grigio, both for $8. The bar specializes in "elixirs," fancy mixed drinks in large martini glasses, including a Blue Nirvana (champagne, vodka and blue curacao) and an Oscar Wilde, described as an "absinthe cocktail, from hotel du Paris."
Rouge offers an even broader variety of wines by the glass, including a mini-bottle of Piper Heidseck for $16 and respectable Australian white and red house wines for $3 a glass. Cocktails at Rouge are wild combinations such as sour apple, vodka, lime juice and pear cider ("green skin martini") or blackberry schnapps, passionfruit and lime ("sin on the rocks").
Rouge food is every bit as good as Topaz. The menu includes such original concoctions as crab seviche sopapillas; coconut-lime broth with oysters; fried bread with creme fraiche and American sturgeon caviar; and a grilled hanger steak with cumin roasted potatoes.
Three large slim round roasted squash ravioli in a brown butter and citrus sauce are out of this world. The ravioli are topped with slivered almonds and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. The lemony butter sauce makes the dish light, rich and exquisitely delicious at the same time.
A mound of spicy slightly smoked diced tuna with sesame seeds is surrounded by a layer of smoked salmon with a pale carrot tequila emulsion. It's a refreshing and complex mixture of tastes for anyone who likes raw fish.
The slices of portobello mushrooms in a warm quesadilla are somewhat overwhelmed by creamy goat cheese and a dollop of dried tomato salsa. It's good, but doesn't compare to some of Mr. Wabeck's other preparations.
Desserts at Rouge include a "deconstructed chocolate cake with chocolate sorbet" and a creamy, sophisticated butterscotch pot de creme.
Topaz and Bar Rouge are perfect places for a pre- or post-movie snack and both bars, when not too crowded, are great romantic rendezvous. And you don't have to be hip, young or even in black to enjoy Mr. Wabeck's fine food.

RESTAURANTS: Topaz, 1733 N St. NW, 202/393-3000; Bar Rouge, 1315 16th St. NW, 202/232-8000
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily and dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily at both hotels
PRICES: Topaz $7 to $17 (petite filet mignon); Bar Rouge $7 to $12 (hanger steak)
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
PARKING: Street parking; $10 valet parking at both hotels
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible (at Topaz through the garage)

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