- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

The lounge alone is worth a visit to Circle Bistro, the relatively new restaurant attached to One Washington Circle Hotel in the District's West End. It's an inviting room that seems to want casual visitors to drop by for drinks and talk. There is a fireplace to spread cheer, and a television set that is turned down low enough for hungry patrons to eat comfortably if they don't want the slightly more formal dining area across the way.
But "formal" hardly describes Circle Bistro, a smartly remodeled version of the old West End Cafe that was something of a local hangout convenient to Georgetown and Foggy Bottom. Pianist Burnett Thompson was a regular performer at the old place, which was ruled over by a woman whom everyone knew only by her first name, Gerlinda, and whose whereabouts are unknown at present. The bistro is a welcome addition to a neighborhood that needs just such a friendly, informal spot as a balance between the corporate Ritz-Carlton down the street and upscale Marcel's on Pennsylvania Avenue and 24th Street.
The interior has been revised dramatically. Color abounds, as do elegant design touches from the drawing boards of architects Olvia Demetriou and Ted Adamstein, the award-winning husband and wife team who have put their mark on many of the best-looking eateries in town. They were in charge of both the lounge and the dining room. And what a "face-lift" it is, going down to the bare bones and starting fresh. Only the support columns remained.
The walls have been opened up between the dining room and lounge bar. On one side of the entry hall are several low upholstered bright orange benches and on the other a sculptural installation consisting of empty green champagne bottles resting in cradles behind glass. Spotlights liven what would otherwise be a dark corridor.
Flattering tropical tones of apricot and gold prevail in many shadings throughout. Walls are unadorned and all the more striking for being so. Decorative touches are provided by a large mural composed of circles behind the welcome desk between the two sections and two tall vases containing the exotic birds of paradise. Dining room tables hold square clear glass vessels filled with green marbles.
Two signature notes: Bar patrons are offered small paper cones of popcorn, and dinner patrons get an unsolicited gift of cones filled with fritto misto accompanied by several dipping sauces served in metal "bridges." This is in addition to a basket of choice bread and butter.
A second reason for a visit is the bouillabaisse, a delicious concoction by chef George Vetsch that warms heart and soul on a cold winter evening. More Asian than French in conception, it is an outstanding choice among the seven appetizers listed. It's possible to make a meal of the soup and fritto misto alone.
We found the fried calamari with chili tartar sauce to be too heavily breaded and salty for our taste. The romaine lettuce leaves arrived uncut undoubtedly for artistic effect on the Caesar salad plate. Marinated shrimp and prosciutto wrapped around skewered scallops was simply an upgraded version of a standard fancy hors d'oeuvre here costing $10 a portion. Minor gripes that might be overlooked by someone impressed by presentation alone. The handsome white serving plates, most of them either round or triangular in shape, contrast nicely with the bare, two-tone inlay wood tables.
The Swiss-born chef, who comes to his present job from the Oval Room, among other well-known local restaurants, is fond of complex combinations that are sometimes more pleasing to the eye than to the palate. One entree contains tiny curried minced veal mounds ("pillows" on the menu), grilled papaya and pineapple, fresh sauteed spinach, and lemon cumin rice in coconut milk. Another is salmon topped with hash brown potatoes surrounded by Jerusalem artichokes, bacon, grapes, and orange in a port wine sauce.
Such items were wonderfully prepared and arrived piping hot at the table along with an order of a seafood ravioli seeped in black mushroom sauce. The lamb dish, called "Moroccan style," was composed of marinated loin chunks (not all of them tender), figs, caramelized plantains and couscous that could have had more zip if spices had been more pronounced.
Alas, even at 7 p.m. on a weekend, the marinated tuna served rare with Thai spices, accompanied by a salad, was said to be unavailable although it is on the regular menu. The grilled fish of the day was an $18 serving of scallops with mashed potatoes the conjunction of two whites on a white plate. A baked vegetable strudel looks appetizing for strict vegetarians. Carnivores might go for the rib eye steak. Green vegetables are perfectly underdone, the sign of a chef's caring eye. It's a pleasure, too, to have a simple black and white menu without the clutter of useless adjectives that in many restaurants often hog the page.
The separate dessert menu contained a surprise milkshake listing in flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry that are well-whipped light concoctions in a long steep flute. "Caprese" is a satisfying chocolate almond flour cake coupled with mango sorbet and chocolate sauce, and the bread pudding is a fairly bland concoction containing chocolate, creme anglaise and whipped cream. Sorbet also is listed. A similarly limited number of dessert wines and cordials range in price from $8 to $15, and only a few single glasses of wine are available in both red and white.
Service was slow at first we had chosen our appetizers before the fritto misto arrived but very attentive; our water glasses were continually refilled. Taped music in the background varied from jazz to Latin to Middle Eastern. Acoustics could be better since conversation definitely will suffer whenever the dining room is full. Management plans special deals for Valentine's Day and regularly has half-price drinks for happy hour on weekdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and a special bar menu featuring Swiss fondue. A three course pre-theater menu is available between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. daily for $28.


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