There's no mistaking who runs Equinox, the sophisticated new American bistro in downtown D.C., midway between Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street. Todd Gray's name is part of the restaurant's logo, which is only fair since its future depends largely on the culinary skills he learned during 16 years as an apprentice to a bevy of renowned chefs.
Named after the celestial movements that signal the change of seasons, Equinox is owned and operated by Chef Gray and his wife Ellen Kassoff, both natives of the Washington area. They opened it after Gray worked his way up from saucier to sous chef to executive chef at Roberto Donna's much-praised Galileo. Gray, the first American to earn the title of executive chef at Galileo, also toiled with three other master chefs, Robert Greault at La Colline, Jean Louis at the Watergate and Michelle Richard of Citronelle.
PRICES: Lunch: appetizers $6-$8; main courses $12-15; Dinner: appetizers $7-$9; main courses $16-19.
Washingtonians should be glad that the 36-year-old direct descendant of Patrick Henry decided to strike out on his own. Gray's decision to trade the security of Washington's premier Italian restaurant for the risks inherent in running his own restaurant was not as dramatic as his famous ancestor's demand for liberty or death, but it has worked out well so far, just five months after Equinox opened its doors near Farragut Square.
Late last Saturday night, for example, Gray was tired, but upbeat, after the last of 165 diners, a table of late arrivals from the Kennedy Center, had been served. "Tonight was a great night with big numbers," he said. "We had two full [sittings] and then some."
That's the kind of volume it takes to pay the bills, and so far, Gray's cooking, and his wife's management of the front, seem to be keeping the tables full, even though Equinox competes with two other fine restaurants on the same block, Ashok Bajaj's Oval Room and The Bombay Club. But several recent meals convince me that Equinox can hold its own with any restaurant in town when it comes to food and service.
Two colleagues and I sampled the autumn menu at lunch last week Gray changes the menu with each season and came away singing his praises. We started off with a basket of freshly baked French and whole grain breads from the Uptown Bakery, served with basil butter in a one-fourth cup measuring spoon. Absolutely first rate, as were our appetizers.