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Posted at 4:31 PM ET, 11/27/2007

Destination Restaurants -- for Cocktails

By Fritz Hahn

Washington has seen an explosion of lounges, Belgian beer bars and classic dives this year, but over the last few months, my thoughts have turned toward four new restaurants. Hudson, Restaurant K by Allison Swope, The Source and Westend Bistro have paid as much attention to their martini menus as the main courses, and while I'll leave the reviews of the food to my colleagues, cocktail lovers will find that they're all worth visiting

Hudson

The Scene: A mod restaurant replaces the old David Gregory restaurant, and its lounge -- white seats, curving banquettes, glowing lights behind the bar -- attracts a younger crowd for happy hour and late-night drinks. One surprise: While Hudson lured cocktail wizard Will Earls from the nearby Firefly, he's working as the general manager, and had little input into the playful beverage menu, which was created by bartender John Hogan.

What Works: Hogan's not afraid to experiment or to adapt ideas from other bartenders. His Housemade Gin and Tonic uses homemade tonic water (hence the gritty brown color and richer flavor), like you'd find at Restaurant Eve or PX, and the bracing Cucumber Collins is a mix of cucumber gin and slices of cucumber that is topped with aromatic "cucumber air." The American Honey and Cherry Manhattan is like no Manhattan I've ever seen, involving French Lillet (a fortified wine), German Kirchwasser (cherry brandy) and Wild Turkey's American Honey liqueur, which is based on bourbon. It arrives with a thick chunk of real honeycomb perched precariously on the rim of the martini glass, and it drizzles sticky sweetness into the cocktail as I drink.

What Doesn't: Unless you're on a really, really lo-carb diet, steer clear of the "Lo-Jito," an "80-calorie guilt-free mojito" made with thin "light" rum and sucralose syrup instead of sugar.

The Cost: $11 to $14

Tip: A different drink is discounted every day as part of happy hour: This Friday, for example, is Rhum Friday, so drinks made with Cruzan Rum, like a classic Mai Tai, are $6 each. Check Hudson's Web site for the schedule.

Restaurant K by Allison Swope

The Scene: Restaurant K looks like a typical downtown steakhouse, with dim lighting, dark wood and a business-suited clientele, but the bar is far more impressive than the decor. Chef Allison Swope and bartender Al Fedorowsky are infusing gins, rums, vodkas and tequilas with fresh fruits and herbs, then serving their blends straight up or as part of creative cocktails. Around a dozen are offered at all times.

What Works: Grapefruit tequila, with tartness balancing the alcohol's bite, is so smooth that it's served on the rocks with no mixer. Flavor pops out of the Bloody Mary, which is based on peppercorn vodka and arrives with a long skewer holding brie, salami, a cornichon and a shrimp. Orange-infused brandy provides the base for the bar's lip-smacking Red Sangria and the fun Mango Margarita; the latter also contains mango-infused tequila.

What Doesn't: Some of the cocktails, like the Apple Rum Martini (granny smith-infused rum served up with a cherry) and the Pineapple Rum Martini (pineapple rum with a strawberry) are just boring.

The Cost: Cocktails are in the $9-$10 range.

Tip: Visit during happy hour -- 3 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday -- for $5.95 cocktails and a discounted bar menu, which includes a solid black angus burger and a tasty duck pastrami sandwich (both $5.95).

The Source

The Scene: Wolfgang Puck's new restaurant at the Newseum gives its first floor over to an airy lounge with plenty of wines by the glass, a few draft beers and a dozen cocktails divided into "Classics" and "Specialty" categories. It's already a popular destination for happy hour groups, business meetings and dates.

What Works: The Classics section is especially strong. A Sazerac is made with Sazerac rye whiskey, the pungent herbsaint liquor and old-school Peychaud bitters. The Sidecar strikes the right balance between tart sour mix (made in-house) and soft Martell cognac. The modern side is serviceable -- a mojito muddled with ginger, a gin martini muddled with cucumber -- but the Peach Creek, which finds Knob Creek bourbon shaken with white peach puree and topped with fresh ginger, is crisp and sweet. Service is quick and polite, and the bartenders are fairly exacting

What Doesn't: The "Specialty" section includes a Flirtini, which makes me instantly deduct 20 points from my review. (Maybe if it was 1998 and I was dating Carrie Bradshaw, I wouldn't mind.) Actually, most of my problems with the Source have nothing to do with what's in my glass. The tables nearest to the bar are really, really low. If you have to sit on one of the stools, you look like you're squatting on the floor. The soundtrack -- Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin -- seems out of place in such a modern (and ostensibly hip) setting. Also, the three televisions behind the bar aren't angled towards the ground, leading to less-than-optimum viewing from the barstools.

The Cost: Everything is $12.

Tip: Can't get a reservation at the restaurant? The full menu is available at the bar.

Westend Bistro

The Scene: Acclaimed French chef Eric Ripert -- winner of three Michelin stars and four New York Times stars for his New York restaurant Le Bernardin -- is the man behind the Ritz Carlton's new restaurant and lounge. The handsome room features a elliptical marble bar glowing with flickering candles, warm amber panels separating the lounge from the dining room. Even with the large plate glass windows, it's quite a cozy room, and would be perfect for a date.

What Works: Everything we tried left us wanting more. The Bourbonesque blends Makers Mark, freshly muddled strawberries and maple syrup in near-perfect harmony, with the syrup providing a base for the rich bourbon notes and kiss of strawberries to shine. The "Ripert" Favorite mixes aged reposado tequila with pomegranate and tangerine for a perfect mix of summery flavors. The Apple Brandy Sour punches up Calvados with fresh lemon juice, bitters and a sugary rim, making for a pleasantly tart aperitif. Wine lovers will find plenty to enjoy, with a large by-the-glass list and many bottles under $50. As in France, carafes of the house wine are incredibly affordable: $14 for a half-liter of red, white or rose.

What Doesn't: Those windows let in a lot of ambient light. Also, the menu desperately could have used a copy editor. "Rhethoric?" "Lois XIII" cognac?

The Cost: Cocktails are $12 or $13, glasses of wine are generally in the $8 to $11 range.

Tip: The bar fills with diners waiting for tables at peak times; If you're just going for drinks, you may have to stand for a bit. Also, some tables in the lounge area are available for walk-ins, but they're mostly for two.

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | November 27, 2007; 4:31 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Comments

Re: the music at the Source...What would you have them play? Eminem? Rihanna? Macy Gray? Get serious! They play classic rock for a reason: it is CLASSIC and appeals to a wider demographic than almost anything else. Besides---this is background music anyway, right? Maybe a bit of Norah Jones would be nice...but I'll be damned if I'd pay twelve bucks for a cocktail and be subjected to the tone-deaf crap that passes for popular music nowadays (and I am in my late 20s...)!

Posted by: GaryDL | November 29, 2007 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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