Circle This!
[from July 2005 issue]

Itís a sophisticated little enclave on the pool level of a Foggy Bottom hotel, and for reasons unknown, appears as undiscovered as a spring blossom covered by snow. At least, midweek, youíll have no problems finding seating in the Circle Bistroís oddly geometric dining space, all angles and with walls of varying shades of pumpkin and pale mustard.

Itís a different story with the bar-lounge, dark, sexy and slightly seductive, with the bartender and his bottles backed against the brightly lit windows of the pool outside. Depending on the time of day, you might catch glimpses of kiddies with their moms sitting poolside, dabbling and splashing in the water. We paused on our way out of the restaurant, still early evening, and saw that several couples had claimed banquettes and bar stools for some quiet cocktail conversation.

But like every true gastronome, youíve come to eat, and this restaurant is about very serious eating, thanks to the dedication of executive chef Brendan Cox. Hereís one fellow who takes the basic raw ingredients and transforms them into meals worth that lengthy drive from elsewhere. As customers, we joined a solitary businessman who had made good use of the early hour for his beef onglet dinner. You must try this, he called back over his shoulder. Itís really outstanding. The waiter nodded.

Nevertheless, itís not wise to order too fast, unless you have had steak on the mind all day. So what else awaits from Coxís kitchen? We scanned the two-page menu, tossing around such appetizer ideas as the warm Sonoma goat cheese fritter with baby organic beets, the pan-roasted Hudson Valley foie gras, and finally settled on the stuffed squash blossom. A treasure of summertime, squash blossoms seem to end up only on the most sophisticated menus--otherwise, a Native-American or Italian restaurant might serve them forth. It would seem that most Americans canít understand about eating flowers, but the squash blossom, a bland base for a savory filling and topping, makes an ideal summertime treat.

Coxís is no exception, as he wraps the blossom in a very delicate batter, fills it with a peanut and herb stuffing and flash-fries it. Its spoonfuls of ratatouille drizzled alongside add a flavor accent and a touch of moisture. The result: A meringue-light appetizer that whispers of contentment with each mouthful.

I listened to the gentlemanís suggestion--yes, the onglet, the hanger steak cut of beef that is tender and almost as lean as a flank steak--comes with sculpted potatoes and a wine reduction that laps the plate. If weíd saved any crusty bread from the basket it would have gone to mop up the plate in a truly barbarian way. If you like beef, youíll rejoice with this preparation. But if you hanker for fish, Cox has several options on the menu. That night, the choices were wild Alaskan halibut with braised morel mushrooms, a nice complement to the beef; wild salmon with baby beets, and pan-roasted wild rockfish. My friend chose the halibut, and signaled thumbs up.

Skipping dessert might make sense of you are sticking to a strict diet, but youíll miss out on some treats. She wasnít up for much, but who could pass up the profiteroles, those wonderful French cream puffs, filled with homemade mint ice cream and accented by a swirl of liquid chocolate? If you lap up the very retro cocktail the Grasshopper, youíll swear by this. Other choices: a confit of rhubarb; madeleines; chocolate mousse; and almond financier.

If you donít often get to the Foggy Bottom area, you should add this to your list of go-to restaurants. Itís open for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch, but dinnertime finds such serious food.

Circle Bistro, One Washington Circle Hotel, 1 Washington Cir., 293-5390. Hours: breakfast daily; lunch, Mon.-Sat.; dinner, nightly, brunch, Sun. Entrťe prices: $19-$27. All major credit cards.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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