Making Old New Again
The Occidental gets a makeover
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007
Richard Nixon still hangs out at the Occidental. So do a fresh-faced George McGovern and a robust Teddy Roosevelt. After six months out of the spotlight, during which it got a nip and tuck, the Occidental is a pleasure to return to. Happily, this historic, century-old dining destination near the White House retains one of its biggest draws -- a museum's worth of black-and-white photographs of politicos and other famous faces, many signed. (It also now offers free valet parking at both lunch and dinner.)
Another reassuring detail is the name on the menu. Rodney Scruggs launched his career here as a teenage line cook, back when Jeffrey Buben was the headliner in the mid-'80s. After tours of duty at Cesco Trattoria in Bethesda and Bistro Bis on the Hill, among other stops, Scruggs, now 40, returned to the Occidental as executive chef in 2005.
Scruggs's food is more about the ingredients than his ego. Ask for crab cakes, and you receive two fine rounds, lightly shaped from mostly lump crab, and a bundle of crisp haricot verts. Order the house-made pasta, and out come long, tender noodles tossed with braised rabbit ragu and a garden of chanterelles, diced carrots and juicy pear tomatoes; a sauce, using wine, game stock and veal glace, promotes the dish from fine to first-rate. The chef's venison is some of the best I've had all winter, deep red and robust, and it's flattered by a sauce of grappa and blueberries that imparts a pleasant dusky-fruity note to the entree. The accompanying chestnut flan provides a subtle reminder of the season.
Any flights of fancy focus more on technique than presentation. In one hearty appetizer, tender squid is fattened with chopped short ribs and garnished with thin fried leeks for a welcome bit of crunch. Homemade spaetzle, intensified with smoked salt and pepper, accompanies a roseate fan of duck breast, whose richness is tempered with slightly bitter braised radicchio and a reduction of blood orange juice. The prices reflect the reality that you're eating at a swell address and that your neighbors are probably on expense accounts: Entrees hover around $30 at dinner, and if you opt for a soup-to-nuts experience, the tab can go well into three digits per person. Price is more of an issue when the food is merely pleasant, as is the case with a big piece of yellowfin tuna surrounded by mushrooms or squash-stuffed ravioli brushed with a buttery sage sauce. They're the kind of "safe" dishes that you forget by the next day. Not so the civilized staff, which goes out of its way to make you feel like you're eating in the right place.
Pastry chef Casper Gibson sees that you leave on a sweet note, with true-tasting sorbets and generous sampler plates. My favorite finish is his nod to winter: a tiny pumpkin cake, a slender two-bite pastry glistening with cranberries and a delicate pecan tartlette.
Most of the restaurant's million-dollar makeover was lavished on the kitchen and goes unseen by the general public. If you've been to the restaurant before, though, you'll still recognize the tiered space, whose walls switched from white to yellow during the dark months. Notice the fresh striped fabric on the booths? The refinished bar? Like the recipient of a great facelift, the reopened Occidental looks refreshed rather than radically different, a grande dame ready for another close-up.