By Suzanne Struglinski - 12/09/09 12:06 AM EST
The best part of 701 restaurant’s $800,000 renovation isn’t the robin’s-egg-blue-and-brown color scheme, or the deep circular booths, or the busy patterns covering the walls and floor.
These are all fine elements of the restaurant’s extreme makeover, but owner Ashok Bajaj’s wisest upgrade came in the kitchen — with the addition of Chef Adam Longworth.
Longworth, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has worked in London, Philadelphia and New York, and he comes to Washington directly from New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill, where he was chef de cuisine. The skill Longworth acquired at all of those stops is apparent in every dish, but a key trait of his emerges at 701: a subtle creativity that keeps his food approachable and delightfully edible.
The smooth experience begins with the live piano-and-bass duo, a nice backdrop to a dimly lit dining room, the speckled candlelight flickering from the tables.
The must-try appetizer — the king crab rolls — breaks up the restaurant’s silkiness with an intense but welcome jolt of flavor. The dish’s crab, avocado and peanuts come with jalapeño pepper — a lot of jalapeño pepper. The five rolls are runny-nose-inducing hot, yet the taste of the crab somehow breaks through the spice. The crunchy peanut provides a nice contrast in texture to the creamy avocado. And then another surprise: Small bits of orange burst with each bite, lending a citrusy hint to the dish. Longworth displays a mastery of marrying bold flavors in the space of one or two mouthfuls.
Speaking of oranges, Longworth must have an affinity for fruit; it appears — and works — in the most surprising places. The grilled diver scallops appetizer comes seared with deep-brown grill marks, and the scallops sit atop a tuft of microgreens. Purple grapes and a slice of grapefruit add a shot of refreshing fruitiness to the seafood.
As for presentation, Longworth strikes a fine balance between interesting the diner with artful plates but avoiding confusing arrangements. His salads come simply dressed and include enough of the “star” ingredients to make them worth ordering. The baby greens salad is plentiful with figs, red onions, radishes and caper berries — larger and slightly saltier versions than what you might be used to — in a light vinaigrette and topped with shaved goat cheese. The spinach salad boasts a generous helping of bacon, pecans, pears and crumbled goat cheese in a heavier, cider-based vinaigrette.
The entrée list revolves around the usual proteins but includes an intriguing vegetarian option of cauliflower ravioli. The sautéed lamb loin, cooked medium upon request, arrives doused in a peppery seasoning that is cooled by a sweet fig sauce. The smoothness of the accompanying potato puree finds its perfect textural foil in a helping of gritty black mission figs. The third side, a sautéed trevisiano (a type of radicchio) is transformative. The leafy green’s traditionally bitter taste become much more palatable with a garlicky spice.
Meanwhile, Longworth takes what could be a simple free-range chicken main course and gives it an Indian flair—perhaps paying homage to Bajaj’s other nearby restaurant, Rasika. The roasted poultry comes with macadamia nut-studded basmati rice and a mango chutney. In one bite it tastes like Indian food, with hints of curry, but in another becomes more like a teriyaki-flavored Asian meal. Both flavors pair well with the nutty rice.
In case these courses only expand your appetite, 701 offers a cheese course before dessert. It comes with a Spanish Manchego, Humbolt Fog goat cheese and a Gorgonzola blue cheese-Camembert hybrid. Olives, salami, crostini and even honeycomb complement the cheese.
For sweeter options, the warm chocolate cake sits with a pure vanilla bean ice cream and is finished with a graham cracker tuile and chocolate sauce.
This is about as basic a dessert as you can find these days — but don’t confuse simple with boring. The cake comes steaming warm, and the rich chocolate flavor makes it seems as if you are eating a cup of homemade hot chocolate with a fork. The moist cake, though it looks heavy, actually has a light texture.
Staying with the idea that simple ingredients provide good outcomes, Longworth also offers a chocolate peanut pave, which arrives with small sticky peanut clusters alongside a chocolate cake, ganache and caramel mousse. This layered dessert has a crispy texture at first bite but turns smooth quickly, particularly when chased by a spoonful of the milk-chocolate malt ice cream.
Service here is polite and attentive, but there can be long waits between courses, with little explanation.
Overall, though, for someone seeking an elegant evening out for a fine-dining experience of modern American food, 701 has yet again become a contender. The new space is beautiful, and Longworth’s food is delicious. When paired, one seems to enhance the other in a way that is otherwise hard to find.