Equinox’s top toque needs more good days
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 14, 2012
There's no grass growing under Todd Gray.
In the two years since we last checked in with him, the owner of Equinox downtown has blown up his Washington portfolio to include two area restaurants (Muse at the Corcoran Gallery, Watershed in NoMa); a cookbook (“The New Jewish Table,” co-authored with the chef’s wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray); and a fresh face to run his flagship Italian-inspired kitchen.
The last detail suggests a veteran chef admirably willing to let go of some ego. Since Equinox opened in 1999, Gray, 48, always enjoyed top food billing. His recruitment of Karen Nicolas, a State College, Pa., native who came to Washington from Simon Pearce in West Chester, Pa., marks the first time anyone but the boss claimed the title of executive chef. “It takes some getting comfortable with,” admits Nicolas’s employer, who found her during her brief stint at nearby Lincoln.
Nicolas, 38, started chopping and sauteeing at her new roost in October. By April, she was propelled into the big league when Food & Wine named her one of its 10 Best New Chefs for 2012 -- a surprising laurel, given her short tenure at Equinox.
The magazine’s tastemakers must have hit the restaurant, which enjoys a perfect location near the White House, on one of its best days. Since Nicolas has steered Equinox, I’ve had four meals there: the first so underwhelming that I thought she needed more rehearsal time; and the last three, all in September, when not a single dish rocked my world. (You want the earth to move a bit when dinner for two easily reaches $150.) Her dinner menu runs a mere eight entrees long, which doesn’t suggest an overtaxed chef.
Good ideas take a tumble in the execution: Sweet peppers stuffed with ricotta are best ordered for the caper-sharpened tonnato sauce beneath them. The dish, a nod to Gray’s time at the late Galileo and its Piedmontese bent, is built on bland peppers with the seeds still clinging and cheese that shoots blanks.
Good ingredients are sometimes disrespected: Diver scallops are masked by a hailstorm of salt; ruddy venison is so rare I expected to hear a heartbeat. Even the signature gougeres are heavier than I remember them under Gray.
Finally, there are plates that would be pleasant enough if you caught them on a trip to Orlando or Phoenix but fail to impress in a world capital. I’m recalling Nicolas’s pillars of rare tuna in a pool of garlicky chickpea puree, and pale sweetbreads on a nest of frisee, figs and blue cheese, the salad upstaging the blond organ meat.
Almost all the dishes could use more editing. Celery, for instance, does not enhance an entree of duck that already comes with quinoa, sliced grapes and beet vinaigrette.
A mix of highs and lows, the wine list could use finessing, too. Look to “Other Whites and Blends” for the 2008 Ceretto Arneis “Blange” ($63) from Italy, versatile with a range of dishes. Among the red wines is a garnacha from Spain, Vinae Mureri “Xiloca” ($44), that nicely balances fruit and spice and would partner well with meatier plates. But stinkers lurk on the list, as well. I’m talking about you, Cono Sur “Vision.” The pedestrian Chilean pinot noir is a hugely marked-up $48.
The new chef ’s sardines give me hope. Big and meaty and firm, the four silvery fish in the appetizer are tangy from pickling and accessorized with compressed cucumber and juicy red grapefruit. Further punctuation comes from a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and dollops of yogurt.
Another dish of interest is goat ragout. The first course, combining tender potato gnocchi, crisp okra and velvety chanterelle mushrooms with the stew, picks up accents from seemingly half the world. (I almost forgot to mention the panes of Parmesan standing up in the ragout.) Yet the crazy quilt succeeds in the mouth.
Trendy Portugal appears to be the inspiration for a lunch of pork belly and clams, the soft textures contrasting nicely with crisp kale in a bowl of tomato and shellfish broth -- (pretty) good to the last drop.
For better or worse, looks matter. Refurbished after a devastating fire in late 2009, the interior is most interesting for the rugged limestone-and-granite wall and wood-tiled ceiling in the main dining room. A divider of frosted glass separates the front atrium and the bar, a ringer for an airline lounge. If you’re lucky, you’ll be escorted to one of the two intimate booths in the center of the place; if you’re not, you might find yourself in what suggests a suburban sunroom. Service can be friendly or frosty, and yes, this is coming from a diner who is a known commodity here.
My favorite finish comes with the bill: a tray of fruit gems, chocolaty almond clusters and springy, coconut-dusted marshmallows that could pass muster in a Michelin stalwart. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try dessert,
just that the last course can be as mixed as what precedes it. An arid slice of lemon cake at lunch can be followed at dinner by a crowd-pleasing bar of shortbread piped with chocolate and peanut butter mousse. Concord grape sorbet completes the riff on a PB&J sandwich.
"Puttin' on the Ritz" was playing the last time I ate at Equinox. How I wish the new chef were
singing the same tune.
Coming next Sunday:
The Fall Dining Guide.