The Jockey Club: Almost back in the winner's circle

President Obama hasn’t shown up yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time. After all, he likes to eat out, and no fewer than eight of his nine immediate predecessors have dined at the Jockey Club since it opened on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, the year Obama was born.

 There’s no better time than the present for Obama to take advantage, as I did, of the bargain-priced Triple Crown menu offered in conjunction with the Big Three horse-racing events — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — in May and June. And he can enjoy the view next door of the Embassy of Indonesia, the country where he spent part of his childhood.

Obama seems to favor hamburgers, and he no doubt will love one of the Jockey Club Classics, a juicy prime burger bursting with flavor and served with french fries, Bibb lettuce, tomatoes and white balsamic mayo. It’s offered only on the lunch menu, but I’m sure Chef Richard McCreadie will be willing to make an exception in his case.

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And Michelle Obama would do well to order the elegant Nancy Reagan Chicken Salad with French beans, celery root and shaved carrots, named in honor of another first lady who was a regular — as were Jackie Kennedy and other A-list Washingtonians like Henry Kissinger, movie stars like Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, athletes like Joe DiMaggio and authentic royalty like King Juan Carlos of Spain. Of course, that was before the storied restaurant closed in 2001, which is why George W. Bush never made it.

Housed in the 75-year-old Fairfax hotel, where Al Gore once lived with his parents, the Jockey Club reopened in December in what is now the Fairfax at Embassy Row after a top-to-bottom renovation by Starwood Hotels & Resorts. And while it’s both the same and different from before, it has lost little of its luster since it immodestly claimed legendary status as “the place to be seen” in the nation’s capital.

But that was then and this is now, and conspicuous consumption is no longer in vogue, especially on the D.C. dining-out scene, where most high-end restaurants have been hit in recent months by a double whammy of the economic meltdown and concern about swine flu — as veteran restaurateur Mel Krupin recently told me — with business down an average of 20 percent.

The Jockey Club has not been immune to the recession virus, according to Martin Garbisu, the French-born maître d’ who welcomed diners to the Jockey Club for 15 years before it closed and is back after a stint at Charlie Palmer Steak. Garbisu is famous for his discretion — as the late Art Buchwald once said, “If you want to get information from Martin, you’re barking up the wrong tree” — but he makes it clear that the last six months have not been a piece of cake.

Be that as it may, the one-time Grand Dame of D.C. eateries was nearly full by the time my wife and I finished an early dinner on a recent Wednesday, and the adjacent Fairfax Lounge was humming as well. Garbisu turned on the Gallic charm as he greeted us and led us to a window-side table adorned with signature red-and-white tablecloths, which, like the red leather banquettes and art nouveau lighting fixtures, have returned.

The service is first-rate, with one glaring exception, which I’ll get to later. We ordered a half-bottle of the Simi Chardonnay from California’s Russian River Valley ($20) from the 12-page wine list and had hardly tasted it before we were served an exquisite amuse-bouche: a succulent slice of lobster topped with red caviar.

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My wife was first out of the starting gate, ordering the House Salad — green goddess dressing, sliced tomatoes and radishes ($9) and sweet onion-crusted Atlantic halibut, served with a creamy zucchini risotto ($26). I placed my bet on the Triple Crown menu, a trifecta choice of any one of three appetizers, entrees and desserts ($49). I chose the white asparagus soup, grilled prime rib steak with bordelaise sauce, french fries and assorted vegetables and the Classic Derby Pie with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

Our appetizers were runaway winners, especially my white asparagus soup, its silky essence dappled with chive oil and fried onions from (where else?) Kentucky. My wife raved about her halibut, calling it the best fish she had ever had, but my stringy, overcooked steak never made it to the finish line. I jokingly asked Garbisu — who admitted that he, like many Frenchmen, has tasted horsemeat — if it might have come from the nag that finished last in the Kentucky Derby.

Next time, I’ll order one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, like the buttery sautéed Dover sole, finished and de-boned at your table ($36), or the herb-crusted Colorado double lamb chop, served with sweet potato flan, French beans and porcini mushrooms ($34).

My dessert failed to show up, so I called for my check, At that point, our waiter offered to bring it post-haste, but I decided I didn’t need the calories. Garbisu made up for the glitch by writing off our wine. I chalked up the oversight to the fact that the Jockey Club has been back on the track for only six months after a long hiatus, and can only get better. It’s not perfect, and still hasn’t regained the legendary status it once enjoyed, but I’ll bet even money that it’ll soon be back in the winner’s circle.