1200 E. Pike, 320-1200 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. AE, DC, MC, V / full bar



Optimism, 100 proof

A new bistro and lounge on Capitol Hill inspires hope.


1200 E. Pike, 320-1200 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. AE, DC, MC, V / full bar

DINING OUT is never just about eating, and only a fool would suggest otherwise. We are fed by atmosphere as much as by food; we are fed by a spirit of welcome. At 1200 Bistro & Lounge, on the former site of Sammie Sue's on Capitol Hill, we are nourished by something else besides: pure 100-proof optimism.

Potent as the gin in your martini, the energy of a new restaurant is a rare tonic for the beleaguered spirit. You walk into 1200 and the atmosphere crackles with hope. It's sparkling new and classed up for evening in jewel tones of red and amber, with glowing caramel drops for lamps and color-saturated art filling the walls: a thorough rebirth from Sammie Sue's homespun shtick. The lounge has a singles flavor (with gay men galore), evincing another form of optimism entirely. Legions of waiters and barmen cluster about, their very presence a signal of high expectations for full tables. It feels like 1999 again.

Among the gentlemen who brought you this little oasis of optimism are co-owner Kenny Carlson, former Labuznik frontman, and chef Brian Twomey, of Seattle Catch, Painted Table, and Flying Fish. Talk about high hopes. And though the welcome at the door takes longer than it ought to (particularly with all these servers milling about), and your waiter doesn't know anything about the specials or what that oil drizzled on your soup is and then forgets one item altogether—in spite of all this, you're carried away by the spirit of the place and find yourself getting rather excited about the food.

You'll be at least partly delighted. Twomey's menu is admirably focused, with four appetizers and 10 or so straightforward meats, fishes, and pastas, and some of these are most tasty. A Dungeness crab cake ($12) is light, greaseless, and so nicely counterpointed with lime cr譥 frae, yellow and red pepper oils, and wild greens, you almost won't notice its slight lack of flavor. (And what's up with one crab cake for $12?) The beef daube ($8), a seductively sweet braised beef stew served in a flaky filo cup, is better, though. If you're splitting this, your waiter may well-meaningly want to cleave it in two at the table, but don't let him: You'll miss the arugula pistou (French for pesto) drizzled around the plate.

If the soup is parsnip puree ($4.50), order it: It's pure velvet, loaded with richly rooty flavor, and finished with a truckload of cream (and in case your waiter is unaware, the green oil on top is cilantro oil). Roast chicken ($16) is also a good bet, crackling golden and suffused with lime from its marinade. On one visit the chicken was too dry, as were the purple mashed potatoes served with it, but the flavors were spot on. Garlic escarole makes a nice accompaniment.

Chef Twomey clearly favors saut饤 greens. With the swordfish special ($25), it's red chard, nice and soppy over another heap of purple mashed potatoes. The star of the plate, though, is the swordfish: Two delicately flavored meaty steaks are seared to crunchy, with saffron butter melted over the top.

The sweet potato ravioli ($14) is the cheapest entr饠on the menu and arguably the best. Eight (only eight!) ravioli are stuffed with sweet potatoes and ricotta and surrounded by sagey brown butter with sun-dried tomatoes; the result is a warm, savory, and perfectly executed winter dish.

NOT EVERY HOPE is borne out at 1200 Bistro. Some dishes are marred by sloppy execution, like the dry chicken. Others lack vision. A wild mushroom tart appetizer ($8), initially forgotten by our waiter, might better have remained forgotten: Were wild mushrooms really there within the bland and doughy crust? Not so you'd notice. The prawn fettuccine ($18), a tangle of good pasta (made by Cucina Fresca), pesto sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, goat cheese, and black tiger prawns, is similarly boring despite the juicy, perfect prawns—the only extra- ordinary note in a nondescript dish.

For something more interestingly bad, opt for the pear endive salad ($7). Sweet caramelized pears, bitter Belgian endive, savory pancetta, and tart shallot vinaigrette should add up to something intriguing, or at least something. Instead the parts remain disparate, unintegrated, and disappointing.

So much for optimism? On the contrary, with all the promise here—problems with service and food aside—1200 Bistro is first and foremost a fine place to be. And after all, aren't problems what hope is for?


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