I often wonder what goes through the average Washingtonian's mind when they are deciding where to dine. Maybe because it's summer time and everyone was away for the weekend, but the first time I went to Circle Bistro, it was nearly empty. I made a late reservation at about 9 PM, and when we arrived, there were only two other tables. Now, I knew from my research that Circle Bistro was good, but I'd started to think that maybe I'd missed something. Could the chef recently have changed? Had the restaurant been closed due to a failed health inspection in the last couple days? What the hell??
Lucky for me, all of those questions were answered with a resounding, "NO!" Our meal that night, and every other night we've been to Circle Bistro, has been quite good. Of course, there were some annoyances, but I'll get to them in a bit.
I'll start with the appetizers. Picture two large fried zucchini
blossoms, stuffed with goat cheese and pine nuts and served with a colorful, chunky vegetable
"salsa" on the side -- I wish I could've taken a pint of the salsa home with me. (Sadly, the fried zucchini blossoms are a summer dish and are no longer on the menu, but they've been replaced by a tomato and zucchini tart.) A soft shell crab fried in tempura batter is also done especially well -- I thought frying the crab in a light tempura batter was a nice touch and kept the batter from getting too heavy.
Executive Chef Brendan Cox, who's trained under such notable local chefs like Todd Gray of Equinox and Roberto Donna of Galileo, has a purpose for every ingredient on your plate at Circle Bistro -- you want to be sure that you get a little bit of each ingredient in every bite. This was so with the hanger steak which I had on my first visit. The steak is seared on cast iron and then served on a bed of baby spinach with roasted fingerling potatoes, and organic sweet onions. Each ingredient on its own is good, but the combination of all of them together does wonders for my mood. If it weren't for my incessant need to always try something different, I'd probably order this on every return trip.
Soups at Circle Bistro are magnificent.
In our first visit, Amy ordered an un-ordinary minestone soup (sadly no longer on the menu either -- serves me right for doing a thorough review after multiple visits). I counted 13 ingredients ranging from rapini (or broccoli rabe) to lima beans. What really made the soup, though, was a fritter (that looked like a wonton) filled with herbed goat cheese. When you cut open the fritter with your spoon and mixed the goat cheese in with the soup, it gave the broth a creamy texture. Brilliant!
Other than the minestrone, you'll find a hearty and spicy gazpacho with heirloom tomatoes and jumbo lump crab remoulade, which just had to be the best damn gazpacho I've ever tasted. I commented to Amy that if she's overdue with our baby boy, we should go to Circle Bistro and the gazpacho might kickstart labor. More recently, there's a yellow pepper soup that's so popular, they ran out last Saturday night when I was there.
Other highlights include just about anything with mushrooms. Brendan Cox is a self proclaimed "Mushroom Maniac" (as am I). The pan-roasted rockfish with girolle (or small chanterelle) mushrooms and zucchini is evidence of this. The fish is roasted with the skin side up in order to leave the skin extra crispy. As I was eating this dish, I noticed a pleasant salty flavor and I said to Amy, "I taste a slightly salty flavor in this dish, but it's not from extra salt." Then I noticed the little bits of crispy pancetta and it all made sense. Yum. I recall eating a similarly served dorade at Citronelle that wasn't nearly as good as this dish.
Of course, Circle Bistro isn't The Most Perfect Restaurant In The World like I've made it sound so far. The nights that I've been there when they were actually busy, I noticed that the kitchen would get a little behind and there was a noticable wait between courses. Luckily, my wife and I have plenty of things to talk about, but if I was on a first date with someone, it might get awkward.
Also. glasses of wine are more expensive than I like to see, ranging from $8 to $13. They seem especially expensive when you can get a full bottle of the $9-a-glass Kermit Lynch Cote du Rhone for just $28.
In all my trips to Circle Bistro, I've had no complaints about the service. It is always spotless and the servers are very familiar with the menu. I'd say the only tiny complaint would be that sometimes my empty glass of wine wasn't replaced with a new one quite as fast as I like. But honestly, I drink like a fish, and most people can stand to have their glasses empty for a short period of time. I also wouldn't mind if when I order the cheese plate the server explain what each cheese is instead of vanishing instantly. It tends to remove some of the guess work.
I'd be remiss if I left out details about the desserts. Heather Chittum, Circle Bistro's pastry chef, makes a bad-ass madeleine -- one shouldn't leave Circle Bistro without trying them. Others worth noting are the profiteroles with homemade mint ice cream and chocolate sauce and a bittersweet chocolate mousse with raspberries.
And finally, if you get a chance, stop by the Circle Lounge, Circle Bistro's bar, for happy hour from 5-7 PM, Mon - Fri, where all glasses of wine, beer and cocktails are half off. Make sure you order the pomme frites with garlic aoli (butter) and ketchup -- they're a guilty pleasure.
Dress Code: Business Casual
Smoking: Allowed at the bar
Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom
Parking: Free Valet at the hotel!
Amy's Bathroom Rating: Hotel restrooms are always pretty clean, although the location right next to the hotel's basement-like laundry room is a little weird.