- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Once upon a time, the restaurant at the Watergate Hotel was Jean Louis Palladin’s showcase. When Mr. Palladin left Washington in 1996, it became Aquarelle, so named by Robert Wiedmaier, who went on to open Marcel’s, his own restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In 2001, with the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, the restaurant became a copy of Jeffrey’s, said to be the new president’s favorite restaurant in Austin, Texas.

Times and tastes wait for no man to come to the table. Jeffrey’s has closed at the Watergate, and Aquarelle is back, better than ever, under the helm of executive chef Christophe Poteaux.

Chef Poteaux is a native Parisian, has worked in Los Angeles and was chef at Tahoga in Georgetown for the brief period of its existence. Aquarelle is lucky: The chef knows his business, and the food is fine.

The decor of the restaurant doesn’t seem to change: an old-fashioned, low-ceilinged dining room with white linen, candles, experienced waiters and pretty watercolors in the hallway leading to the restaurant. Tables are a bit close together, but side-by-side tables for two are separated by an etched glass panel, which offers a bit of privacy.

The extensive menu is a mix of classic French and modern American, prepared with care. Nothing is outrageously innovative, but the conventional is not boring. One of Aquarelle’s best culinary features is a series of fixed-price menus, ranging from $49 to $79 per person and from four to eight courses. Unlike the usual quality and quantity of fixed-price menus, these offer some of the kitchen’s best dishes, and portions are substantial.

We tried the four-course Potomac menu priced at $49, starting with a Watergate Caesar salad. The crisp Romaine lettuce is adorned with a tiny quartered quail egg, two small white asparagus spears and an anchovy — not the usual salted one, but an alici, preserved in a vinegary brine. The dressing, not quite the California classic, is nevertheless very good.

The salad was followed with a succulent, creamy crab cake made of first-quality lump crabmeat, lightly sauteed. It is a superb rendering of an American classic and could not have been better.

The main course was a choice of filet mignon, a stuffed pork chop or organic salmon with a sorrel sauce and mushroom risotto. My choice was the filet. The portion was about 6 ounces; the meat was perfectly cooked, tender and delicious. The accompanying bearnaise sauce, a little on the salty side, was fine.

The meat is accompanied by a potato gratin with slivers of fennel giving just a tone of complexity to a scrumptious dish, and a mixture of French beans and baby carrots. Who could ask for anything better?

Dessert, a pyramid of dark and white chocolate mousse, was good although not up to the rest of the menu. (The $59 Gastronomique menu has a selection of desserts from which to choose.)

Aquarelle has an ample selection of a la carte items. Among the appetizers is an escabeche of sea scallops, anis-cured duck foie gras, tuna tartare, asparagus soup, and a salad of artichokes, roasted beets and asparagus.

The watercress-and-cucumber salad was a disappointment. The watercress had not been trimmed properly, and the long, tough stems made it a chore to eat. Thin slices of red radishes, bits of goat cheese and sliced cucumbers are a pleasant combination with the watercress and add a touch of color.

Entrees are varied, divided between fish and meat dishes. Fish include tuna in a spicy broth, rockfish fillet with mussels, sea scallops and John Dory fillet with a lobster champagne sauce.

Meats are equally varied and range from goat-cheese-crusted rack of lamb to a veal chop and include several cuts of beef. The free-range chicken breast, with a slightly spicy sauce diable, is moist and tender. The garlic mashed potatoes that come with the chicken are not overwhelmed by garlic but just lightly flavored, and the garni of spring vegetables is fresh and nicely buttery.

Appetizers on the lunch menu are a limited version of dinner — escabeche of sea scallops, tuna tartare, arugula-and-beet salad, asparagus soup, and Caesar and watercress salads. The main courses offer a pasta dish with spring vegetables, veal scaloppini and rainbow trout in addition to salmon, those delicious crab cakes, sea scallops, chicken breast and steak.

In addition, there’s a buffalo burger on a toasted brioche and an open-faced chicken breast sandwich on focaccia bread.

Aquarelle’s wine list is comprehensive; there’s a good variety of wines by the glass, beginning at about $8. Service is well-informed and professional, although it can be a bit slow at times.

Aquarelle is a good venue for breakfast meetings. In the daytime, the dining room is bright and cheerful, with a splendid view of the Potomac. The complimentary valet parking makes it an ideal spot for business meetings when rush-hour parking restrictions abound. Aquarelle continues a path well traveled.

RESTAURANT: Aquarelle, 2650 Virginia Ave. NW; 202/298-4455

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

PRICES: Starters $6 to $12 (lunch), $7 to $17 (dinner); entrees $14 to $22 (lunch), $26 to $35 (dinner). Prix fixe menus from $49 to $79

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Some street parking; complimentary valet parking

METRO: Foggy Bottom

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

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