August 2004Connecticut Avenue south of Dupont Circle, once a business area with a few restaurants and old-time bars, is experiencing the encroachment of the club culture. Recent arrivals are more likely to sell food to accompany drinks than full dinners. These include Dragonfly, with a sushi bar; MCCXXIII, with upscale bar food; the recently opened Heritage India, with a menu of Indian small plates; and now Panache, just off Connecticut Avenue, with an extensive menu of tapas and mezze.
Panache is on Desales Street, which runs between Connecticut Avenue and 17th Street, just north of the Mayflower Hotel. There's less traffic than on Connecticut Avenue, which makes it an appealing spot for outdoor tables and pleasant during good weather when the restaurant's French doors are open to the sidewalk.
There are five entrées on the menu, but the main focus is the list of more than 30 hot and cold tapas and mezze. Panache is no match for Jaleo or Zaytinya, where a large volume of business means that tapas or mezze are freshly prepared. At Panache, cold items are often too cold, and hot dishes taste of reheating, but it's possible to have a very satisfying lunch or a good light supper.
The gazpacho--cold, garlicky, and full of flavor--is a good way to start a summer meal. Good selections from the cold plates have included Escalivada Mediterra'nea, a plate of grilled vegetables; the mozzarella antipasto with mozzarella di bufala, grilled vegetables, and roasted peppers; carpaccio of beef, topped with good Parmesan but too cold; and fattoush, a tart salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and mint.
The hot dishes are more interesting: Arancini di Riso, fried rice balls stuffed with cheese; snails on puff pastry with a sherry-cream sauce; nicely spiced crabcakes; artichoke hearts with roasted peppers; boneless chicken cooked with garlic, tarragon, and tomato sauce. Avoid the fried calamari, which have a prebattered taste, and the rabbit, which tasted of the refrigerator.
Its location made Panache an instant lunchtime hit with staffers from ABC News next door and with the trade associations around the corner on 17th Street. The place also does a brisk after-work bar business, the source of part of its appeal and some of its problems. At lunchtime, when the staff is geared up to serve food, service is attentive and food arrives promptly. In the evening, when attention is focused on the bar, diners are likely to face waits for menus, drinks, and food.