By Alexander Bolton - 11/17/11 11:38 PM EST
If Washington is presiding over the decadent decline of America, then the new restaurant Sax is the place this town has been crying out for.
Sax oozes sexual intrigue, and knows it. Its signature cocktails are Scandalous, Faux Punishment and Eve & Eve. The house dessert is Saxual Chocolate.
Sax made a splash earlier this year when it opened with provocative murals of Washington characters, including dead ringers for Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
After a backlash, Sax quickly backpedaled and painted over the caricatures, but the racy vibe remains.
The focal point of the posh restaurant is an infinity stage that floats 15 feet above the slick bar at the room’s front.
Ensconced in the wall above the bar is a 9-by-20-foot stage. Sax’s athletic dancers perform behind a one-way mirror that reflects onto a mirrored wall behind them, multiplying their gyrations ad infinitum.
Background music gives way to a throbbing club beat every half-hour as colored lights flood the stage, materializing Sax’s sexy performers out of darkness.
Sax makes an immediate impression. The façade is polished red granite and the velvet ropes let you know this restaurant is a club. Doormen whisk open the vaulted front doors, reclaimed from an old church.
The golden foyer is flanked with ornate, plush armchairs. Glass drops hang in streams from the ceiling. Diners pull on the scepters that serve as handles for the next set of double doors and step up to the hostess, who sits behind a swank reception desk. She’ll take your coat and umbrella and usher you into the main event.
The dining room itself is a cross between Venice’s Teatro La Fenice and Versailles, the French Sun King’s home. Gold and deep red suffuse it.
Nancy Koide, Sax’s co-owner, said the theme of theater came from the dimensions of the space, which formerly housed the Posh Restaurant and Supper Club.
“We saw that space about seven or eight years ago. It morphed from looking very theatrical to having performances. We kept adding to it,” said Koide, who also has stakes in nearby downtown restaurants SEI and Oya.
The walls and ceilings are covered in gilded Rococo moldings, much of it wood.
The 13 chandeliers and wrought-iron sconces are from Second Chance, an architectural warehouse in Baltimore, giving the ultra-modern space an antique air.
Banquettes along the walls and balcony seating orient the crowd toward the stage. A second row of bar seating gives the happy-hour crowd a better vantage.
The highlights of the menu are the cocktails — among the best in Washington. The Winter Whisky Sour, mixed with fresh lemon juice, aromatic bitters and fall spice and a bit of egg white to add body, is especially good, featuring nutmeg notes and a very subtle sweetness.
Sax serves one of the most distinctive gin-and-tonics this reviewer has ever tasted. Mixed with orange zest-infused tonic, it’s served in chilled teacups, which keep the ice cubes from melting and evoke the British East India Company.
The cuisine is modern French created by Jonathan Seningen, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who later worked under Paul Liebrandt in New York and Yannick Cam at Le Paradou in D.C.
The menu is pricy, but there are deals to be found. This month Sax began offering a $49 five-course tasting menu every Tuesday.
As for appetizers, the Wagyu beef tartar, served with a light dressing of tomato pistou and lemon basil, matches melt-in-your-mouth-tender beef with a crisp wafer. The heirloom tomato salad offers the perfect amount of fennel as embellishment. A sea scallop carpaccio gives your tongue a bracing dose of the sea, while the beet and goat cheese salad has a classic French combination of flavors, unlike many of the other dishes.
Though Seningen studied under classic French chefs, he has broken away from the old-school saucy cuisine. His conception of modern French strives for light and clean flavors.
Courses are punctuated with amuse-bouches such as apple sorbet with sea salt or chestnut soup, served in espresso cups.
Seningen’s kitchen does lobster well. The Maine lobster sliders, cooked with brown butter and tarragon and served on a sweet bun, are mouth-watering.
The roasted Maine lobster with Honey Crisp apples and crepes has subtle highlights of lemongrass that pull the flavors together.
The braised Shenandoah lamb is shaped into little cylinders and interspersed with folded crepes. The apple sabayon sauce gives the dish a distinctive tart sweetness.
The grilled Brussels sprout salad heaps watercress on slightly crunchy sprouts sprinkled with lardons, a classic French taste. The dish is served with a soft-boiled egg, reminding me of the oeufs en meurette I enjoyed on a recent trip to Burgundy — though there was no red wine sauce here.
The restaurant serves a decadent finish with the aforementioned Saxual Chocolate experience, which lives up to its billing. It’s a blackout cake with caramelized white chocolate, lemon cream and chocolate mousse. Those who don’t like chocolate can instead choose the apple trifle or peanut pave, a feuilletine with peanut nougat and salted caramel resembling a deconstructed Snickers bar.
The wine list offers tasty selections from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but it pales when compared to the impressive and extensive list of champagnes and white sparkling wines: Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin “Yellow Label” Brut and even Armand de Brignac “Ace of Spades Gold” Brut for $750 a bottle. Champagne rose, champagne blanc — there’s a wide array. If you wish to celebrate a special occasion by popping a cork, this is a good place to do it.
Not surprisingly, much of the clientele comes to celebrate special occasions, the staff says. The busiest nights are Fridays and Saturdays. Mondays are also popular. The draw? A burlesque show.
The whole experience sometimes seems like a scene from a rap video. But that might have been because a promoter for Def Jam records sitting nearby bought a round of shots for my table.