Raising the bar: Lounge 201’s new menu has hits and misses

For those looking to see and be seen, Lounge 201 has always offered a setting that teeters between upscale and over-the-top. A lounge more on a par with U Street’s Chi Cha than with other Capitol Hill pubs, 201 has added a revamped menu that introduces a bit of flavor to the area’s already packed palate.

The lounge’s ambiance is well-known: an older crowd than the typical Capitol Hill haunts and a mix of professionals that goes beyond the usual staffers and lobbyists sit at a well-appointed bar or at one of the tables around the restaurant’s outer edges. Drinks are plentiful; fewer order the food.

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But the new menu offers a myriad of novel options for those who are peckish after a long day at the office. Billed as “new American tapas,” some items stand out for excellence while others need a re-evaluation.

The “201 Duo,” a combination of slider hamburgers, stands out on the menu’s selection of hot tapas. While sliders may be a staple of contemporary American restaurants these days, the sauces that accompany the 201 Duo mini-burgers are superb. An avocado cream atop the angus beef and Irish cheddar combination makes for a notable sandwich, while the remoulade decorating a well-made Maryland lump crab cake will prompt thoughts of a second order.

The flatbreads, too, are a pleasant way to sate hunger. They come in several combinations — the Big Cheese mixes four different cheeses with truffle oil and basil; the Italian Stallion marries pepperoni and spicy sausage with provolone cheese; and the Veggie includes peppers, wild mushrooms, shallots and mozzarella cheese. They’re light enough to keep patrons munching without weighing them down.

But the Tuscany flatbread, a roasted chicken pizza with basil pesto, red onions and two cheeses, stands out. A dining companion remarked on the garlic, which is noticeable without being overbearing, and the crust, flaky and crunchy without being dry.

Pizza and burgers are hard to screw up, and one would expect wings to be the same; after all, Capitol Hill is teeming with bars that can cook a solid bit of chicken. But Lounge 201’s kitchen has work to do before its wings join the legion of others with good reputations. The Latin wings came charred and absent the advertised roasted poblano salsa verde, a situation made worse by the disproportionate price-to-product ratio.

Similarly, the kitchen’s effort at more exotic fare can fall flat. The best part about the Moroccan lamb are the chickpeas that come on the side; the lamb itself has nearly as much gristle as edible meat, and using knives and forks is hardly enjoyable in a bar.

While the menu is hit or miss, so is the restaurant. Set below street level and kept dark, Lounge 201 is alternately described as hip or dank; as trendy or as trying to be something it isn’t. And while a recent Tuesday evening yielded few patrons, it can be impossible to get to the bar on a Thursday or Friday. There is little middle ground.

The wait staff is attentive — when it has time. But before the happy hour crowd clears out, order a drink early; martinis, for which the bar is known, can take awhile to make.

For a locale that aims at a more mature set — don’t expect to see post-softball celebrations — one might hope for a wine list with more depth, instead of a number of bottles for between $24 and $36. There are some deals, to be sure; a Chateau St. Michelle is hardly marked up, while a well-regarded Clos Du Bois is reasonably priced.

Instead, it is the cocktail and beer lists on which 201 can stake its reputation. Specialty infused vodkas and bourbons meet a Tuesday martini special that can impress cocktail lovers. The drinks “are creative, and [bartenders] are not stingy with their pours,” said one congressional aide who has spent a few nights in the basement.

Meanwhile, the specialty beer list, featuring craft brews from Germany to Maine to California, is impressive, while beer drinkers can appreciate a spectrum of better-known brews, from Guinness to Hoegaarden.

The space rivals Sonoma, on the House side of Capitol Hill, as a premier private-event location. Come holiday season, interest groups and lobbying firms will carve out their night in one of the bar’s three distinct rooms.

If a celebration is in order at one of these special events, a superb champagne list features two Veuve Clicquots and a few pricier bottles.

When 201’s private rooms aren’t being used for closed parties, the happy hours are often overlooked. Half-price martinis on Tuesday give way to half-price wine on Wednesday, and take half off a reasonable specialty beer list on Thursdays. Jonesing for a cocktail? Take a few bucks off the price on Fridays as well.

Given the odd hours — Lounge 201 is closed except to private events on Saturday, Sunday and Monday — anyone looking for a bite off of the new menu may want to head over on one of those days when access to the bar is easiest. Otherwise, the menu may not be worth the wait.