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Washington, DC: Dining with a Capital D

"Great! We can play spot a senator and ogle the ambassador," exclaims my friend as we enter the Beltway, headed for five days of capital eating.

"Save your appetite for Hollywood," I protest. "Let's ferret out places real people eat, where you don't have to experience fiscal trauma or name-drop your way to a reservation."

A few days later we're back on the Beltway, mission accomplished. We've uncovered a noodle nirvana, a comfort classic, succulent seafood, a hot Latin café, and, yes, one of America's most beautiful dining rooms-- at least my friend got one chance to reconnoiter through his social telescope.

COVET THY NOODLES
Some restaurants turn you into a would-be thief; you want to steal the recipes or make off with the maître d'. At Zuki Moon-- an eight-month-old restaurant near the Kennedy Center-- you'll want to walk out with the walls. Their fresh, almost palpable color invites gastronomic comparisons: spring wheat, Granny Smith apples. It's a shade you can practically eat, and I wanted it for my dining room walls. Badly.

Chef-owner Mary Richter's smart, simple take on Japanese appetizers and noodle soups also has an artsy feel that inspires you to pinch the concept for your next dinner party. The beautifully presented fried calamari aren't as greaseless as you'd hope, but are pleasant with their zippy sesame sauce. Anchor your meal with a hefty bowl of nourishing soup like Zuki udon, a clean, bright medley of tempura, thick noodles, greens, chicken, and scallops; or delicate somen noodles with seafood and fish cakes that swim in a tongue-teasing broth. After soup you could head straight for a mango sorbet, though it would be a shame to pass up the wasabi-spiked tuna served atop rice. Should you fall in love with the restaurant's Japanese pottery, you're in luck: it's for sale here.

COZY REPAST
Now, here's a place Washington loves to love. In the Adams-Morgan neighborhood (D.C.'s United Nations of tastes), Cashion's Eat Place feels like a throwback to the seventies. Remember the look?Lots of glass and light wood, tweeds, batik. Jazz. Classics smile at you from the small, seasonal menu: roast chicken with pearl onions, pork chops with spoon bread, potatoes Anna.

One starter, rabbit ravioli with sage butter, is heavy on salt but oozes with flavor. The other, an excellent onion tart, is authentically Alsatian-- that is, dripping with butter.

My companion refuses to surrender even an ounce of his gorgeous wild rockfish with a citrus salsa and yucca. It's only fair that I hang on to every bit of my buffalo hanger steak, crusty and properly chewy, flanked with perfect asparagus and a stuffed potato.

Cashion's desserts are full of innocence: no painted sauces or in-your-face chocolate hairpins here. Baba au rhum, naked on the plate like a plump cherub plucked from a Baroque fresco, is accompanied by a pitcher of celestial sabayon. Cranberry panna cotta, with a side of cinnamon cookies, is a dense, creamy round bursting with flavor.

GRAND ESTABLISHMENT
In the eating stakes, New York is famous for flashy debuts and fleeting affections, Washington for culinary loyalty and conservatism. Lespinasse, an outpost of the New York Establishment, set up its regional office-- and New York chef Gray Kunz's sous-chef Troy Dupuy-- at D.C.'s Carlton Hotel a year ago. True to form, the District's vote is being held up in filibuster. Washingtonians are impressed with the glorious setting and luxurious food, but they resent all the fanfare and quibble about the prices. Deep down, they can't forgive the newcomer for daring to think its presence can make up for the closing of Jean-Louis at Watergate.

Me, I'm easier to please. The magnificent coffered ceilings, the grandiose sweep of the draperies, the Limoges china, and the Napoleonic blue of the banquettes make this one of the most sumptuous dining rooms in the country. Service is smooth but has soul, the sommelier is happy to play, and the atmosphere is gracious, not stuffy. The French-American-Asian food pales next to the New York original, but my meal-- a procession of jewel-like whimsies-- is worth the high ransom I paid.

The rouget, a ruby-skinned red mullet, is poised on stripes of yellow- and red-pepper coulis. A neat slab of marinated tuna, so rare it's almost sashimi, teases with Asian accents. Cannelloni with sweetbreads, cépes, and asparagus-- alas, oversalted and surrounded by a fashionable puddle of sauce-- are pierced by an arrow of crisp pancetta. The risotto is ravishing: two silver pots, one holding creamy rice, the other a musky wild-mushroom fricassee.

A pre-dessert amuse-gueule-- a pearlescent glass shell holding a marble of ice cream afloat in a fine rhubarb purée-- steals the thunder from the chocolate-orange soufflé it precedes. Opulence breeds discretion, but over petits fours we do indulge in a little political peekaboo. That man in the corner-- an Ecuadoran minister of finance squandering the GNP on a Swedish starlet?Hiding behind the wine list, George Stephanopoulos or a look-alike?

GOOD CATCH
A busy "American brasserie" in a Georgetown town house, Kinkead's is no lobster joint. Still, order your food from the daily menu, inhale the gutsy aromas, and you'll get an irrepressible urge to abandon decorum and dig in with both hands. To Bob Kinkead, D.C.'s beloved seafood maestro, the fruit of the ocean is a lusty, sensuous pleasure. He procures from elite suppliers, and dresses his catch with bold flavors inspired by the Mediterranean but nonetheless as tellingly American as a Texan in Tokyo.

My favorite appetizer is the Ipswich clams fried in buttermilk batter, sandwiched between slices of sugar-cured lemon. The shad roe is also delicious, blending bacon, capers, cornichons, and a sweet-sour sherry reduction that nicely cuts through the roe's richness. There is nothing shy about the expertly fried snapper that comes with an utterly delicious cauliflower flan, or the rustically charred baby grouper accompanied by a larger-than-life side of roasted Mediterranean vegetables.

The two-level space is a bit short on charm, but the good cheer and sparks that fly from the open kitchen make up for the impersonal design. Where else in D.C. can you see pin-striped Southern Republicans discussing swordfish with African-American civil rights lawyers?

SPICY SURROUNDINGS
"If you're after hot Latin flavors and seductive settings," my Washington friends advise, "try Café Atlántico." I'm there in a flash. Our dinner party settles in at the top of a narrow four-level room, looking down on a fantasy of brightly colored banquettes, mosaic tiles, and tropical tableaux on the walls-- rumba swaying quietly in the background. Not quite Batista's Havana, but it could be nineties Miami.

We kick off with house caipirinhas (a drink of Brazilian white-lightning cachaça, lime, and sugar) and guacamole prepared at our table. A flaky chorizo empanadilla, with red and green sauces, is wonderful. But another starter-- a mushroom quesadilla overpowered by poblano sauce-- goes down like an unrehearsed salsa set, sexy but cacophonous. Main courses navigate the New World: a mixed grill from Argentina, Brazilian feijoada, Puerto Rican rice stew. All are jazzed up with nuevo latino touches. Though the menu's semantics are spicy, Veracruz snapper with a briny accompaniment of tomatoes, capers, and olives is delicious but tame. My taste buds perk up with the quail tamal fingido, a plump, juicy, mushroom-stuffed bird with creamed corn, sweet-potato quesadilla, and guajillo chili sauce. Fade-out: desserts are a sublime banana-chocolate cream pudding and a passion-fruit charlotte.

Contributing editor ANYA VON BREMZEN'S book Siesta! A Celebration of Latin Hospitality is due out this month from Doubleday.

WHO'S EATING WHERE
Bring binoculars to the discreet Seasons (Four Seasons Hotel, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/342-0810), and you might catch Colin Powell at the lavish brunch buffet; the Doles often drop by for dinner. Eavesdrop on policy gossip at the Monocle (107 D St. NE; 202/546-4488), whose regulars include Al Franken, Bill Maher, Mark Russell, and Arianna Huffington. At the Euro jet-set Café Milano (3251 Prospect St. NW; 202/333-6183), out-of-town glitterati-- Michael Jordan, Demi Moore, and Bruce Willis-- mingle with models and Mediterranean ministers of state. The First Family adores the vegetarian thali at the opulent Bombay Club (815 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/659-3727). Its tandoori salmon draws Jodie Foster, Janet Reno, treasury secretary Robert Rubin, Peter Jennings, and health and human services secretary Donna Shalala.

THE RESTAURANTS
Zuki Moon 824 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202/333-3312; lunch for two $26.
Cashion's Eat Place 1819 Columbia Rd. NW; 202/797-1819; dinner for two $60.
Lespinasse Carlton Hotel923 16th St. NW; 202/879-6900; dinner for two $130.
Kinkead's 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/296-7700; dinner for two $80.
Café Atlántico 405 Eighth St. NW; 202/393-0812; dinner for two $45.

Prices do not include tax or tip.

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