Same place, with a new face

Stories about Capitol Lounge usually start off with, “This one time, when I was an intern … ” or “The other night at happy hour … ” But beyond the drink specials (particularly on Thursday nights), the Pennsylvania Avenue institution is trying to kick itself up a notch with a new, semi-famous chef and an updated menu.

 Not to be outdone by “Top Chef’s” Spike Mendelsohn, whose Good Stuff Eatery is just up the street, Capitol Lounge in June unveiled a new menu created by Teddy Folkman, a former contender on “The Next Food Network Star” and co-owner and executive chef of Granville Moore’s on H Street NE.

This is not the first time the Capitol Hill hangout has unveiled a newer version of itself. A fire gutted the place in 2005, and another severely damaged it in 2007. Once remodeled inside, the next logical move was a menu makeover.

The updated menu still contains familiar bar food, such as Buffalo wings and french fries, but Folkman’s touch changes a few old standbys into fancier foodie fare.

 For starters, there are two french fry options: regular or sweet potato. The traditional fries are cut very thin, almost like long matchsticks, and bring back memories of late night Steak ’n Shake runs in college. The fries come to the table hot and crispy, with a sprinkling of an unidentifiable herb.

While at first the fancier sweet potato fries seem out of place in what is supposed to be a Capitol Hill dive bar, they are a nice alternative. The orange fries are not as greasy as their traditional counterparts, and the sweet potato taste is subtle, but the texture is certainly different from the thinner traditional fries. These need no ketchup or malt vinegar, as their flavor stands out on its own.

As for the regular buffalo wings, they are close to what you expect to accompany a beer after work. But to feel a little bit more upscale while downing the happy hour special, order the parmesan garlic variation. These still satisfy a craving for wings, but they are a sauceless iteration of the classic, and thus less messy. They are garlicky but not in a “Give me a breath mint now” kind of way. And the parmesan flavor is apparent, but not as if the wings have been buried in too much cheese.

The traditional wings, if you go that route, have the spicy kick one expects. The blue cheese dipping sauce that accompanies a serving contains chunks of cheese and should be finished with the celery sticks if the wings don’t do the job themselves.

If mozzarella sticks are your happy hour favorite, you won’t find them here, but it might be time to move on to bigger and better things anyway. Folkman provides just the item in his goat cheese poppers. They are fried and breaded, and there’s cheese, but the textural differences between mozzarella and goat cheese are monumental.

This more sophisticated dish contains a creamy concoction of cheese, bacon, roasted peppers and chives. The poppers are more like three mounds, and they do not have the stringy side effect of a mozzarella stick (something this reviewer appreciates). One patty in the order was slightly cold in the middle, while the others were volcano-hot.

Looking back, this starter stands out as one of the more random items on the menu, and it’s definitely not something you would expect to eat in a bar. However, this is what makes the dish interesting.

It takes several bites to finish one, and while at first you may want more than the three, the rich flavor and texture of the goat cheese make the amount just right. The one drawback: These would be better if made into smaller bites versus the crab cake-size portions.

Capitol Lounge offers a choice of specialty pizzas or an option to build your own with both traditional toppings, such as pepperoni and sausage, and the less conventional, like feta cheese, artichokes and prosciutto.

If you’re looking for a burger alternative, opt for the steak and cheese sub. The classic sandwich is served on an Amoroso roll, which anyone who knows Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwiches will tell you is a must. It has a crusty outside but soft, chewy, white-bread inside that gives the sandwich a South Street flavor in the middle of Washington. The surprise twist is the horseradish sauce, which adds a welcome kick.

But while the cheese-steak earns the Capitol Lounge points, the Reuben sandwich takes a few away. The over-buttered white bread did nothing for the huge portion of corned beef and small amount of sauerkraut. And granted, this is not supposed to be a neat sandwich to eat, but the unrelenting drip-drop of the butter, Thousand Island dressing and sauerkraut made it almost impossible to handle. Use a knife and fork.

A weekend brunch offers a build-your-own-omelet option as well as a “Hangover Sandwich” of scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, jalapeños and garlic sauce.

On the whole, Capitol Lounge has always been reliable for happy hour — the beer selection is still plentiful, including Starr Hill’s Pale Ale, The Love and Jomo Lager from Charlottesville, Va. — and now patrons can expect tasty food to accompany their drinks.