- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

“See you around the Circle,” says the welcoming message on the back of Mark and Orlando’s menu. The Circle is Dupont, and this newest addition to the P Street strip of restaurants is in a brick rowhouse in the 2000 block. Mark’s is upstairs, a casual bar-restaurant; Orlando’s is downstairs, the white tablecloth dining room. The downstairs room, with its simple decor and light from the windows on two sides of the room, is by far the more attractive.

Mark Medley, a former waiter with an interest in wine, and Orlando Hitzig, formerly chef at Blue Point Grill in Alexandria and 701 in the District, have put together an appealing menu of contemporary American dishes. The lunch and dinner menus are similar with the addition of some entree salads and sandwiches at lunchtime.

Meals begin with a dish of four flavored butters. In addition to straight sweet butter, there might be caramelized onion, garlic, bean, apple or tomato butter with small slices of focaccia. It’s a fanciful and charming beginning.

The highlight of the appetizer menu is a goat cheese grits cake adorned with shaved fennel and a fine ancho chili sauce (available at both lunch and dinner). The little cake has a delicious crispy exterior and soft, almost creamy interior. With the fine sauce and the slight crunch of the fennel, this is a superb dish.

A grilled Caesar salad makes another excellent and unusual starter. Crisp, fresh leaves of Romaine are lightly grilled and placed on a bed of Caesar-like dressing and sprinkled with grated Parmesan. While the dressing lacks the bite of anchovies, it’s very good and balances the slightly smoky taste of the grilled lettuce. It’s an excellent twist on the classic Caesar served at lunch.

The steak tartare is not so successful. At Mark and Orlando’s, the dish is not the classic version of ground beef mixed with egg yolk, onions, capers and parsley. Here, the beef is chopped into small chunks and mixed with onion and a balsamic vinegar reduction. Although the beef is fresh, the texture and consistency are unpleasant. If the beef is not ground, the chopped morsels must be tiny; at Mark and Orlando’s, they are too large and many contain bits of gristle.

On the other hand, a smoked-fish plate works well either as an appetizer or a light main course for a cool summer lunch. Small portions of bay scallops, mussels, salmon and eel surround a little mound of creme fraiche, some chopped lemon and a spoonful of capers. Most of the fish is not smoked in-house, but quality is high. Particularly delectable are the tender little scallops and the eel with its sweet-smoky flavor. The mussels and salmon are less interesting, but, mixed with the cream, bits of lemon (rather than just the juice) and the capers, the smoked fish is very good.

The rack of pork stuffed with apple, pancetta and blue cheese is outstanding among the main courses. The pork is almost fork tender and the stuffing is subtle, rather than pronounced. Served on a bed of fresh spinach with grilled pearl onions and a light rosemary-scented sauce, the thick chop is a culinary delight.

Sauteed crab cakes are a bit ordinary. Ours had a strong fishy smell, which adds nothing to the dish. The sauteed king salmon could have been excellent as the fish is of first quality. Unfortunately, it was ordered rare and came to the table cooked through. The salmon is served with a lovely cumin-spiced eggplant flan, and a bit of roasted cauliflower. But for the overcooking of the salmon, this would be another winner.

Mark and Orlando’s menu is well-rounded and includes grilled chicken breast with leeks, sun-dried tomato and Swiss chard, grilled New York strip steak, and hanger steak.

Fish floats in from all over the world: corvina fillet from Costa Rica with orzo, avocado puree and wax beans; Australian escolar with gnocchi; seared Pacific blue marlin; blue-nose bass with summer squash and potato cakes; and halibut with roasted purple potatoes.

Most of the dinner salads are available at lunch, such as asparagus salad, melon salad and a green salad with Belgian endive. The menu includes a soup, which on several recent visits was a rich, warm carrot, apple and coconut soup, although the coconut was barely discernible.

At lunchtime, main-course choices include jumbo shrimp with spaghetti squash and a grilled lamb steak with wild mushrooms and couscous. A crab cake sandwich, a cheeseburger and a soy and ginger marinated chicken breast sandwich complete the lunch menu.

Desserts include the ubiquitous creme brulee and individual chocolate cake with a soft, semi-liquid center. Both are good though not outstanding. The kitchen seems to specialize in spice-perfumed ice creams, which are very popular. Flavors include such herbs and spices as black pepper, pineapple and sage, garlic, and curry. We tried the curry. While the addition of the spice to the rich, creamy ice cream is pleasant enough, I prefer traditional flavors, but then, “de gustibus non disputandum est” (“There’s no accounting for taste.”)

Mark and Orlando’s has an excellent, varied, and reasonably priced wine list. Included is New Zealand’s delightful sparkling wine, Lindauer, available by the glass or bottle. Wines by the glass range from a California sauvignon blanc for $5.75 or a California shiraz for $5.50 to a French pouilly fuisse for $10.50 and a Napa cabernet reserve for $8.50 with half a dozen each of reds and whites in between. Bottles range from $19 to $45.

Service tends to be slow; there’s a shortage of waiters for the room, which seats about 35. But Mark and Orlando’s is still very young and will surely resolve such minor problems. Messrs. Medley and Hitzig know what they are doing and do it well.

RESTAURANT: Mark and Orlando’s, 2020 P St. NW; 202/223-8463

HOURS: Orlando’s (down-stairs ), lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday ; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and until 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Mark’s (upstairs), dinner only, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, but daily beginning in mid-September

PRICES: Appetizers, $6 to $8 (lunch), $6 to $10 (dinner); entrees, $9 to $14 (lunch), $18 to $22 (dinner); desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Not wheelchair accessible

METRO: Dupont Circle (Red Line)

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