New chapters for two downtown mainstays
701 and Equinox turn a (menu) page
By Tom Sietsema
Nov. 7, 2010
Ed Witt and his 400 hours' worth of tattoo work came to Washington from New York to cook at Morso in Georgetown last year, and, as sometimes happens in this business, the chef and the restaurant parted ways before the Turkish-inspired eatery opened. Around the same time, local restaurateur Ashok Bajaj was looking for someone to head up his kitchen at 701 after Adam Longworth left the city.
Although I was sorry to see Longworth's fetching architectural food go, I'm happy to welcome Witt's wit on the plate: his ham and cheese ravioli, for example. He rolls out the pasta, which incorporates a little whole-wheat flour, stuffs the pockets with cheddar cheese, spoons a delicate mustard sauce over them and tops off the dish with crisp sails of baked prosciutto and fresh basil. Each packet is like a tiny grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich as conceived by an Italian maestro. At once elegant and comforting, the dish reveals Witt's funny side.
"You can't be too serious," says the chef, 37, whose knuckles spell out "good" on one hand and "evil" on the other. Underscoring his philosophy on the menu is slow-baked salmon partially covered with "coffee crunch," a combination of baked and ground coffee, flour, butter and sweet spices that is more enhancing than it sounds.
The guy is sly. Cured tobacco finds its smoky way into the braising cider for an entree of rosy pork loin and braised belly. The reason you keep returning to the bread basket is that the rolls are rich with lard. One of Witt's most novel dishes stars cauliflower garnished with pureed Swiss chard and mounted on "almond milk" (pureed toasted nuts, lemon juice and almond oil). Long-stemmed caper berries sheathed in tempura give the subtle vegetarian entree a necessary jolt of salinity.
Yet this is no sideshow. In his early days, Witt worked at such respected restaurants as Jardiniere in San Francisco, and Daniel and River Cafe in New York. This experience shows up in, among other arrangements, a dynamite appetizer of quail, thoughtfully deboned, bound in prosciutto and bedded on creamy grits. The Southern theme continues with collard greens found in the center of each slice. Rainbow trout is brined, then cold-smoked using compressed Japanese wood; a shower of crushed peanuts lends crunch to the fish dish, lapped with red wine sauce.
Pastry chef Melanie Parker, an alumna of Equinox, follows Witt's lead with desserts that tweak tradition. Apple pie is rethought as a warm fruit compote decked out with strips of cookielike pastry instead of the usual cover of crust. And carrot cake shows up as a moist roulade, with cardamom ice cream. There's also a fine warm walnut cake accessorized for fall with maple-walnut ice cream.
Witt and company are anything but boring.
Dressed for success -- or at least for a supper club -- in soft blues and browns, 701 bends over backward to encourage patronage. At lunch, there's a bar deal that offers one of a choice of five dishes and a glass of wine for $15. The pre-theater menu runs throughout dinner on Sunday and includes one of my favorite dishes as an option: ear-shaped pasta with diced acorn squash, walnuts and a light, sage-scented butter sauce. There aren't many upscale restaurants dishing out live music, but at 701, piano on Thursday night is followed by piano and bass on Friday and Saturday.
The wine list, meanwhile, includes a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, citrusy on the nose and a pleasure to sip, from an estate called Mission Hill. It's a friendly wave to 701's neighbor up the street: the Embassy of Canada.
The accompanying Equinox review