Restaurants in The InTowner
The InTowner
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Circle Bistro: Circling Around

It’s déjà vu all over again — dinner at Foggy Bottom’s Circle Bistro, where some years ago a friend and I dined in casual comfort. (See, Reservations Recommended, “Circle This!,” InTowner, July 2005, page 15; available in Current & Back Issues Archive, That menu produced basic American fare with a few frills, such as battered squash blossoms and a decent hangar steak, dishes composed by then-chef Brendan Cox, who now works at DC Coast.

What’s changed? — one wonders. Not much, as the physical layout goes. It’s still the same sophisticated, if somewhat unknown, hideout with its dark and sexy bar and the oddly shaped and angled dining room. As for the kitchen, entrées are slightly more expensive, and the chef is new, bringing with him an appreciation for seasonal and healthful recipes. That’s Ethan McKee, formerly of Rock Creek Mazza Gallerie, a restaurant with cooking focused on fresh, sensible, and somewhat calorie-trimmed meals.

McKee, a graduate of Gaithersburg’s L’Academie de Cuisine, has cooked elsewhere locally, including Carlyle in Shirlington and with Todd Gray at Equinox. So flamboyant cooking, health-conscious eating, and fresh food sensibility are all part of his work experience. That makes Circle Bistro worth a visit, but you’d better pick your time well. Despite having reservations for dinner recently, it turned out that a private party had taken over and closed the dining room, forcing outsiders and hotel guests into the by-that-time very lively bar.

Crowded around small glass cocktail tables, and fending off a would-be table snatcher, two of us ordered drinks and waited, and waited, and waited. Clearly staff was caught off guard by the large dinner/drinks crowd. Yet waiting for McKee’s cooking seemed worth the hassle.

Note that the menu may change regularly, perhaps even monthly, to keep up with the season, all part of the seasonal fresh cooking movement. Despite seasonal menu changes, however, maybe you’ll be lucky to find some regulars, such as his starter cannellini bean soup, with chorizo, piquillo peppers, and spring onions — a dish not dependent on a seasonal ingredient. If so, take advantage of McKee’s ability to convert what might have been a plain-Jane white bean soup into a velvety broth bursting with subtle layers of hearty flavor.

His roasted beets salad is a sure-fire winner, too. There’s something compelling about pairing sweetish beets with peppery arugula, a nutty walnut vinaigrette, and salty goat cheese to bring out the salad lover in you.

With only a handful of entrée options, patrons can choose from the expected beef/seafood/pasta regulars; only the roasted Peking duck breast with crispy leeks suggests how well McKee thinks outside of the box. Welcome, too, was his creative combo of roasted monkfish with smoked chorizo and baby spinach. Alas, the fish had overcooked and dried out, losing some of its magic. So also my friend’s tagliatelle Bolognese with sprinklings of Parmigiano Reggiano, a pasta dish that missed the mark. Too bland, he said. Given the evening’s bedlam, however, it is easy to see understand the kitchen’s missteps.

Occasionally, McKee poked his head into the two dining areas, clearly assessing the evening’s progress. The waitress, too, fluttered around, and as a peace offering, gave us an on-the-house dessert: a hot, fresh-baked fruity crumble with a scoop of melting ice cream. Good yes, but on my part, I’d have opted for the pastry chef’s lemon meringue with pomegranate sorbet.

Obviously, management has hit upon a kitchen combo with flair and talented. But to woo patrons in this restaurant-mad city, they’d better get their reservationist clued in: with advance warning, we would have avoided Circle Bistro’s overcrowded venue and headed elsewhere for dinner.

Circle Bistro <BULLET> One Washington Circle Hotel, 1 Washington Cir., NW; (202)-293-5390. Hours: breakfast, daily; lunch, Mon.-Sat.; dinner, nightly; brunch, Sun. Entrée price range: $21-$29. All major credit cards.