Change Comes to Another Pennsylvania Avenue Landmark
Ashok Bajaj is a busy guy. After recent successful renovations of the Bombay Club and Oval Room, anchors in his constellation of culinary luminaries, the restaurateur moved on to redo his Pennsylvania Avenue power eatery. After 19 years in operation, 701 shut down for a whirlwind renovation earlier this summer. It’s amazing to see how quickly a place can be completely transformed. In just 10 days, all traces of the comfortably familiar face of 701, essentially unchanged since opening in 1990, were wiped away to be replaced by yet another esthetic triumph for the London-based ARA Design firm.
Working with Bajaj, Harry Gregory of ARA has created a beautiful space. Gone are the power reds, replaced by an elegant and soothing palate of ivory, browns and blues. There is a vague retro feel to the décor, enhanced by the stripped carpet and pale turquoise, butter-soft leather Neptune chairs. Banquet seating is upholstered in a wonderfully heavy brown fabric punctuated by turquoise trellis work and large black flowers. The space is creatively divided into different areas with dark walnut wooden booths, lacy glass panels and long brown fringe — all dominated by a dark and light graphic wall covering that looks alternately like bubbles and chain mail.
Meanwhile, interesting fixtures fill the various spaces with a soft glowing light. A profusion of brown and clear glass globes hang over the communal dining table in the private dining room, while drum-like shades featuring an intriguing monochromatic marbleized effect fill the space above the lounge area and twisted wire balls hang over the bar, still manned by longtime bar manager Mo Taheri.
Bajaj paired his front-of-the-house makeover with changes in the kitchen, bringing in executive chef Adam Longworth from New York. Though young, Longworth brings a substantial pedigree to the job, having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked under such well-established chefs as Alfred Portale, Tom Collichio and Christopher Lee.
Chef Longworth’s menu is more eclectic than its billed description as “contemporary continental cuisine” might suggest, reflecting in part his travels through Europe and Asia. Working with raw ingredients, for instance, Longworth juxtaposes an Asian-inspired hamachi crudo — served with shiitake mushrooms, cucumber, lime and spicy soy — with a steak tartare done in a traditional English style with whole grain mustard, cornichon, red onion and grilled bread. The contrast is interesting, and demonstrates Longworth’s comfort with a range of culinary traditions.
Across the menu Longworth incorporates classic combinations of ingredients with a clear ethnic identity. The bronzino entrée is grilled with olives, potato confit, garlic aioli, Serrano ham and chardonnay vinegar in a classic Spanish preparation. Free-range chicken, meanwhile, is prepared in brown butter and served with mango chutney, macadamia nuts and basmati rice for a decidedly Indian subcontinent feel. The pappardelle bolognese represents the best of Italian tradition and then some. The sheets of pasta (on the thinnish side) support the thick sauce with large chunks of short rib, pork veal and parmesan. One of the heartiest presentations of the dish, it’s a perfect comfort food for cold and dreary days of deepening autumn.
Other dishes are an amalgam of different flavors with ethnic features less in evidence, though they still demonstrate Longworth’s mastery of effective pairing. A thick roast pork chop in apple cider reduction sits atop a mound of roasted vegetables and potato gnocchi and butternut puree. It’s another dish that evokes the feelings of wool sweaters, wood smoke and brilliant red and gold leaves.
Prior to coming to D.C., Longworth heard that Washingtonians like fish, so his menu offers a nice variety. Black bass is paired with lentils, artichokes, haricot verts and red grapes in a ver jus emulsion that makes for a very substantial dish, while the halibut is given a more tropical treatment. Seared and accented with carrot puree, tamarind and coconut and accompanied by jasmine rice, the fish is light and slightly sweet. Perhaps the most appealing of the fish dishes, and certainly the most surprising, is the Scottish salmon. While its description seems fairly straightforward — warm mushroom vinaigrette, potato gnocchi and broccoli rabe — one bite shows that’s Longworth’s creativity runs deep. The vinaigrette is made with chardonnay vinegar that has been steeped with espresso. Salmon and coffee may sound like an unlikely combination, but it’s absolutely delicious.
Presentation is important to Longworth, and he has created some dishes that are as visually memorable as they are delicious. His beet salad is a short rectangular pile of building blocks of roasted red and golden beets along with compressed apple. Garnished with orange yogurt and toasted walnuts, the dish offers a complex profile blend of sweet, sour and bitter tastes.
Nowhere is the emphasis on presentation more evident though than the dessert creations of pastry chef Roger Potter, who shares Longworth’s creativity in combining ingredients to highlight and complement their unique characters. Each choice is created from a palette of discrete components with different tastes, textures and color, all artfully arranged as if the stark white plates were a canvas. A thin slice of sweet white vanilla angel food cake is dressed with bright red slices of tartly spiced sliced plums, paired with tangy deep pink sangria granite in a yellow basket of lemon poppy seed tuile and garnished with white candied pistachios and plum pit crème. Playing with a more understated color scheme but even more intense flavors, Potter has also put together a rich goat cheesecake with roasted medjool date in another striking dish. While these two desserts are rather sophisticated in flavor, Potter offers more accessible options as well. The warm individual chocolate cake served with vanilla bean ice cream, graham cracker tuile, and an intense chocolate sauce is a more conventional crowd pleaser. One of the best options starts with almost humble ingredients — peanuts, chocolate and caramel — and transforms them into the whimsical dessert dubbed Chocolate Peanut Pave, in which chocolate soufflé cake, peanut ganache and caramel mousse are layered into a small, dense block of delight and served with a rich milk chocolate ice cream.
Fun with flavors isn’t limited to the food at 701. Will Murck, beverage program manager, mixes up some really interesting cocktails and handles fruit very effectively in his concoctions. Currently on the menu, his blackberry sidecar — made with Courvoisier VS, Cointreau, blackberry puree and lime juice — is a knockout twist on an old favorite. Murck likes to work with passion fruit, and it shows up in an excellent martini as well as in his special version of a mojito. He also manages the wine program, which is substantial, with more than 180 choices and 20 available by the glass.
With its location midway between Capitol Hill and the White House, 701 has long drawn the power crowd as well as the occasional well-heeled tourist. This has not changed with the renovation. Though located just a few blocks from the heart of bustling and often frenetic Penn Quarter, it feels a world away. The atmosphere is refined, with frequent live music serving as a backdrop for the conversations that go on in the alcoves and corners that are a marked feature of Gregory’s clever design. You get the feeling that serious and important business is being transacted here — at least it certainly is on the kitchen side of things.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.