At 701, a Penn Quarter pioneer, a new chef keeps the wit and whimsy alive

Back when Ashok Bajaj was the owner of a single dining room, Bombay Club on Connecticut Avenue, he used to stroll along a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol and marvel at how so much historical ground embodied so few places to eat. As hard as it is to imagine now, the area that became Bieber-hot Penn Quarter was questionable enough that when Bajaj opened his second establishment there, in 1991, he parked on Pennsylvania Avenue rather than the iffier Seventh Street.

The area’s early champion christened his contribution to the scene 701 Pennsylvania Avenue Restaurant and Bar. Designed as a supper club for a world capital, the venture was a cocktail based on live music, a caviar bar and, given the right seat, a VIP view of the National Archives across the avenue.

In the intervening years, the restaurant dropped 34 letters from its name, retired the caviar bar, went under the knife for a major refresh and saw half a dozen chefs cycle through the kitchen. When I last trained my tongue on 701, four years ago, Ed Witt was at the helm. Back then, cured tobacco found its way into a braising cider for his rosy pork loin, and almond puree became a base for a clever vegetarian dish of cauliflower garnished with pureed Swiss chard. Witt’s approach to cooking was novel, much like the ink spelling out “good” and “evil” on his knuckles. (The meat-centric Partisan now has the pleasure of the chef’s company.)

In February, Benjamin Lambert, an alumnus of Restaurant Nora, took over the kitchen reins. Like Witt, he tends to walk a path that’s whimsical and stylish while acknowledging his less adventurous constituents with a strip loin and potatoes.

Almost every appetizer contains a little wonder. Let’s start with corn soup, of which fields of examples can be found right now. At 701, Lambert floats an oval of chili-lime sorbet on a pale yellow pool, along with a garnish of pickled tomato and crumbled bacon. Beet salads are as common as motorcades in Washington, but Lambert makes like a fashion designer with his rendition, alternating roasted beets and pickled apple on a brushstroke of tart strained yogurt charged with chipotle. Completing the edible garland are strategically placed toasted walnuts and beet “glass,” as a server calls the sheer, ruby petals of dehydrated vegetable.

The kitchen is happy to oblige half-portions of its pastas, which are my preferred way to tuck into lunch or dinner. Pappardelle, green from ramps and hearty with duck ragout, picks up crunch from duck cracklings and tang from pinches of goat cheese. It would be easy to request another half-portion for an entree, but that would mean missing some of the magnets among the main courses.

Like the pork “duo,” pairing loin and a delicious bar of sausage that Lambert shapes from dry-aged loin, belly and sirloin. Summery corn puree and buttery chanterelle mushrooms contribute to the plate’s charm offensive. 701’s luxe origins are recalled in the butter-poached Maine lobster, the sweet claw meat affixed to the plate with shimmering tarragon puree and accompanied by a lobster boudin with the texture of custard. Seafood calls to me at lunch, too, when the sandwich selections include a very good shrimp roll that lines up chopped seafood, mayonnaise and bright herbs on a toasted bun. A mountain of thick-cut potato chips is winnowed to a depression — mine, for having so little self-control.

Lambert, who briefly worked at the Goodstone Inn and Restaurant in Middleburg and spent a year at Wit & Wisdom in Baltimore, sometimes goes too far. A side dish of popcorn grits with bacon jam and jalapeño caramel is grist for an Onion parody. While not as awful as it sounds, a spoonful of the porridge is enough to satisfy your curiosity. Veal “trio,” a roundup of loin, short rib and deviled liver, fails on one count: overcooked liver. The batter on the soft-shell crabs could double as body armor, but kudos for the electric crab XO sauce on which the seasonal delicacy rests.

Desserts are also better read about than eaten. The exception is a ball of banana mousse cake robed in dark chocolate and rolled in crushed peanuts; a tiny ice cream cone tilts against it. Boardroom, meet boardwalk.

Soft blues and browns give the curvy, coffered dining room, which includes a bar set off with beaded curtains, a look that says Special Occasion even at high noon. An inferior picture awaits those in the back, which has all the pizazz of a holding room but offers movers and shakers a sense of privacy (so much so that when Caroline Kennedy lunched with the Japanese ambassador this summer, their bread-breaking didn’t make it to the gossip pages). Bottom line: 701’s various nooks and alcoves make it a good place to seal a deal or share a confidence.

The restaurant reaches out, Sally Field-style, to make you really like it. Among the many ways 701 snares suits, skirts and even shorts (hey, it’s tourist season) are a $25, three-course Bipartisan Lunch on weekdays and a $55 Sunday Supper that includes a featured bottle of wine and three courses. Those who enjoy live entertainment with their dinner should know that 701 features a pianist on Thursday and Sunday and a pianist plus a bass player on Friday and Saturday. Meanwhile, the polished managers and waiters tend to be the types competing restaurants want to poach.

“Sometimes I walk in and see 15, 20 House members — exactly my goal when I opened,” says Bajaj of his supper club, which is where Hillary Clinton gathered with tearful supporters following her 2008 concession speech to Barack Obama.

Bajaj’s restaurant collection has grown over the decades to eight places around town, and if his three-digit
dining room isn’t as groundbreaking as Rasika or as close to the seat of power as the Oval Room, 701 will always be recalled as its neighborhood’s tasteful pioneer.

2 stars

Location: 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-393-0701. www.701restaurant.com.

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $16, main courses $20 to $36.

Sound check: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy.

Next week: Tom Sietsema reviews the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Va.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-393-0701. www.701restaurant.com.

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $16, main courses $20 to $36.

Sound check: 69 decibels/
Conversation is easy.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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