Kennedy Center

Circle Bistro

I want to write about this while it's fresh in my mind...

I stopped by Circle Bistro tonight for an early dinner. The place wasn't very busy due to it being Halloween and we had Noah with us so we just sat at the bar. After a few drinks with their happy hour specials (half price wine glasses, beers, and cocktails), we just ordered a bunch of appetizers.

To start with, at $8, Circle Bistro's duck confit is a steal. Yum! Yum! Yum! As is the three cheese plate at $9. Go soon and try the sweet potato soup with fennel sausage and sage croutons -- the best soup I've had in a while. When Chef Cox stopped by to say hello, he told me that this wont be on the menu long (soon to be replaced by an onion soup), so go to Circle Bistro and try it now. Also, the papardelle with duck ragu...a perfect hearty dish for the fall - Love it!

When I return, I need to try the monkfish - It sounded sooooo good!

Notti Bianche

I first visited Notti Bianche on the first floor of the GWU Inn very soon after they opened. That one visit left me with fond memories of their crispy roast chicken and questions about their nontraditional (at times) pasta dishes, but of course that was only one visit and it was close to their opening.

Obviously, Notti Bianche (translates to White Nights in Italian) has come into their own since then, because recently (or maybe since they opened, I'm a little oblivious at times) people have been talking about Notti Bianche quite a lot. I wondered, "Was I missing something?" So I made a couple return trips to reassess my original opinions.

I'll start with what I found good...Executive Chef Anthony Chittum makes a nice hearty minestrone made with lardo. I'm almost depressed that spring is here, which means that the wonderfully hearty soups of winter will start disappearing from menus.

If you're unfamiliar with what lardo is, it's, not basically -- it is 100% unadulterated pork fat, cured and smoked. The minestone soup was one of my favorite things on Notti Bianche's menu and quickly reminded me how mediocre the minestrone that I've been making at home is. I think I need to find some lardo rather than the ham hock that I've been using to flavor my stock. What is it with chefs that come from Equinox and their soups?!

If you are brave enough to eat sweetbreads (come on, grow a pair people!) the crispy veal sweetbreads should be ordered by your group. Now they're not the best I've ever had (that honor goes to Galileo), but they're crispy, juicy and served with seasonal ingredients. The current menu has them with squash caponata, pine nuts and aged balsamic now, which are mostly just distractions from the big enchilada, but add subtle flavor to the dish.

For a salad course, you should try Notti Bianchi's tender baby octopus salad with firm cannelini beans and lemon. The octopus isn't rubbery and the charring gives it a wonderfully smokey flavor. I've had some octopus elsewhere that had more the consistency of overcooked chicken reheated in a microwave -- which doesn't make for a very good salad.

At Notti Bianche, the entrees aren't overshadowed by the appetizers and second courses which means your meal doesn't peak early. The roast chicken from when I first visited is gone and has been replaced with a crispy-skinned poussin (or spring chicken or cornish game hen), served with polenta cake, foie gras and grapes. All combine to make hearty, meaty and sensuous flavors.

While there are many Italian wines on Notti Bianche's wine list, there are also wines from other  countries like Greece, Argentina, and Australia. Danny Boylen, restaurant and bar manager, does a hell of a job managing the service and wine. One of the key indicators of this? Most of the staff actually seems happy to be working at the restaurant. All too often you hear staff bitching to each other while the boss isn't around -- not at Notti Bianche. Oh, and the wine list is pretty kickass as well.

From the Notti Bianche web site, "at Notti Bianche, we are committed to a comprehensive wine program which reflects our passion for wine and our pursuit of excellence. Our list focuses on 'boutique' wines from very small vineyards where the winemakers are involved in the entirety of the process. We believe that we have crafted a list that harmonizes with our food and enhances your dining experience." You'll find many bottles of wine in the $30 to $40 price range, and the wines are interesting and different than you find everywhere else.  I always like to see wines other than the typical Mezza Corona Pinot Grigio.

Now before you continue reading, you need to know that for me, Italian food is all about the pasta. Maybe that's a little short-sighted, but that's just what I like. I can go to an Italian restaurant and order a pasta course for my main course and if it's good, I'll be very content.

Ok now for the not so good...(and it's just my opinion, and many others have said they love the pastas here) but I just don't care for the pasta dishes at Notti Bianche. I think I just always find something wrong with them. For instance, the ricotta gnocchi has completely wrong texture for gnocchi. The large lumps of gnocchi combined with the meaty trumpet mushrooms have a heavy texture that I just can't get over. There's just something about a light, melt-in-your-mouth potato gnocchi that this dish is missing.  When the server asked how I liked the gnocchi, I was honest, "I didn't care much for it." They were surprised I didn't like it, stating that it was their most popular pasta dish. Perhaps it's just me?

I'm also torn on how I feel about the risotto. The last time I was there, the featured risotto was a saffron risotto with pork belly. While I thought the flavor of the risotto with saffron and pork belly were a fun combination, the risotto also seemed overly al dente.

As you'll see from their online menu, prices range from $6 to $27, which makes Notti Bianche pretty reasonably priced, and below average for restaurants of this caliber. My checks have come in at about $100 to $150, depending on how expensive a bottle of wine and the number of courses I've ordered.

Notti Bianche
824 New Hampshire Ave, NW
Washington, DC
(202) 298-8085

Hours of Operation:
Mon-Fri 7AM to 10AM, Sat-Sun 8AM to 10AM
Mon-Fri 11:30AM-2:30PM
Sun-Thu: 5PM-10PM, Fri-Sat 5PM-11PM

Dress Code: Business Casual.
Parking: Valet ($6) and street if you can find it.
Allowed at the bar.
Closest Metro:
Foggy Bottom.
Reservations: Taken.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 2 out of 4 diapers. Dining room isn't huge, and the atmosphere is a little too quiet to warrant bringing a baby to. However, if you can time it right and go while your child is sleeping, you're probably golden.

Circle Bistro

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.

Circle Bistro
One Washington Circle Hotel
One Washington Circle, NW
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 293-5390
Circle Bistro Web Site

See the Circle Bistro web site.

Dress Code: Business Casual
Smoking: Allowed at the bar
Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom
Parking: Free Valet at the hotel!
Reservations: Taken
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.

Osteria del Galileo

Wednesday night, I went to Osteria del Galileo with Amy on a whim. It was the first time that Amy or I had been there. I'm not sure what made me decide to go there tonight, but I was in the mood for good Italian food. Maybe it was the bad meal I had at Sette Osteria last weekend. Maybe I needed to reaffirm my faith that I could find good Italian food in the DC area.

Update: I want to clarify for everyone, that I went to Osteria del Galileo and NOT Galileo. They are different sections of the same restaurant. When you ask to be seated, ask for the Osteria, otherwise they will seat you at the regular Galileo, which is much, much more expensive. Sorry for any confusion I have caused anyone by not making this clearer.

I've hesitated to go to Osteria del Galileo for a while now. Ever since I read about it on Roberto Donna's web site I've wondered what it was like. I figured that since it was Roberto Donna and the Osteria only seats 20 the wait would be forever. Roberto Donna's web site says that the dress is casual, but I suspected that it might not be THAT casual. I mean, casual to me means jeans. However, when I called, the hostess said that jeans were fine and that there was no wait. Plus they have valet! GREAT! We were on our way.

As it turns out, the valet parking was free. I'm not sure if it's always that way, but it was on Wed. night. We had our pick of tables so we sat down right next to the window. Behind us was another table and then this huge cheese refrigerator. There were a ton of cheeses in there. At one point the waiter opened up the fridge to show some other people and you could smell all the cheeses. The smell immediately filled the room.

"We need one of those in our house," Amy commented. She's sooooo addicted to cheese lately.

The whole idea of Osteria del Galileo is cheap Italian food. And I don't mean cheap as in Taco Bell cheap, I mean reasonably priced. Appetizers are all $5, pastas from $7-$8 and meat dishes from $10-$11. That's just about the cheapest I've been able to find Italian food at in the DC area, regardless of how good it is. You get your choice for 4 to 6 dishes in each category.  Oh, and the pastas...are all homemade. No boxed crap here. About half the dishes were something I'd never even seen at other restaurants. The wine menu has about 8 different wines on it, all of them under $22. We decided to get the Barbera d'Asti which was the most expensive one on the menu. IT WAS FANTASTIC - one of the best wines I've tasted in a while.

For starters, I went with a pasta dish, opting for the fettuccine with chicken and chicken liver. This was a very interesting combo that I'd never seen before.  I really liked it...A LOT. Amy had an appetizer - the buffalo mozzerella with grilled marinated pumpkin. It was also excellent. Both dishes were very simple, but cooked perfectly. My pasta was al dente. The pumpkin in Amy's appetizer was just firm enough and not mushy.

For entrees, we both ordered a meat dish. Amy had the meatballs on a bed of polenta. She did comment that she thought Olazzo's meatballs were better. Sorry Roberto.  My veal scallopine was great.  It was lightly breaded with a nice combination of seasonings. All dishes were very simple - not too complex with a ton of ingredients. The chef managed to take advantage of all the flavors of each ingredient. We barely managed to finish our entrees and we were stuffing ourselves to even come close to finishing them. Obviously, portions were plentiful, which I did not expect. I was expecting that the portions would be tiny to make up for the cheap prices. We asked the waiter, and he said that the portions are usually a little smaller, which I would not have minded. 

I want to commend the waiter who was serving the Osteria. There were only three tables that he had to wait on, but he managed to make us feel like we were really at a five star restaurant. He was constantly attending to our needs. He even noticed that we were staring inquisitively at the bread and came over to explain to us what each was. Our wine and water glasses were never empty and everything came out in a very timely manner.  A+++ on service.

To finish off the meal, we had some coffee. It's Galileo's special recipe and comes in a huge coffee press. Seriously, there was enough coffee for four to six people in that coffee press. As we sat there drinking our coffee, we looked around and wondered why Osteria del Galileo wasn't packed. I mean, we were one of three tables taken at the restaurant. Towards the end of our meal, we were the only ones there. We asked the waiter if it was usually as empty as it was, and he said it was...EVEN ON THE WEEKENDS.

Which leads me to my last statement...

D.C. What the hell is the matter with you???!! We have this excellent Italian restaurant that is run by one of the best Italian chefs in the country, and you're going to Maggiano's and Bucca di Beppo? It makes me weep. Oh well, more good food for me I guess.

Update: See my latest post about Osteria del Galileo. My most recent experience there was quite different than this one.

Osteria del Galileo
1110 21st St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 293-7191

Tue-Thu 5:30pm-10:00pm
Fri-Sat 5:30pm-10:30pm

Dress Code: Casual (you might feel a little out of place though with all the suits and ties going into the real Galileo)
Reservations: Not Accepted
Nearest Metro: Farragut North or Farragut West or Foggy Bottom (Thanks Chef Shogun)
Valet: Yes

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