Same address, changed atmosphere: 701 shines with new chef, interior

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 9, 2010

701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

** 1/2 (out of four stars; Good/Excellent)
Sound check: 65 decibels/Conversation is easy.

Just because someone has worked under a great talent doesn't automatically make him a champion, too. Yet almost every bite of Adam Longworth's food at 701 in Penn Quarter suggests that he absorbed the lessons imparted by one of the food world's best-known architects, his former boss, Alfred Portale of the esteemed Gotham Bar & Grill in New York.

Don't recognize the brand? Portale, a founder of New American Cuisine in the '80s, is the guy responsible for coaxing salads into skyscrapers and turning desserts vertical. His edible designs weren't just easy for the eyes to feast on, however. His choice ingredients were woven together with taste in mind.

Last year, as prolific Washington restaurateur Ashok Bajaj was refreshing 701, he lured Longworth, Portale's former chef de cuisine, to take over the kitchen in July. The chef's goal, Longworth told me, was to "get the restaurant popping again."

Carrot soup doesn't sound like much of a reason to race to a restaurant, but Longworth's bowl makes an immediate impression. Its pale orange surface finds a pretty green flan in the center, and every spoonful of soup reveals some luscious surprise. That crackle? It's from crushed peanuts. That heat? There are wasabi peas in the appetizer, too. The flan, made with peas and spinach, tops a dollop of wasabi creme fraiche. Each ingredient plays off the other. Each brings something special to the mix.

Same thing with the chef's salads, including a turban of soft spinach hiding slivers of green apple and shaved fennel in its folds. The spinach rises from a pleasing base of crunchy bacon bits, pinches of goat and blue cheeses and honey-roasted pears. I can't recall the last time I paused to admire a green salad before tackling it.

More lush is a salad of sweet chunks of king crab artfully arranged with creamy avocado, celery, leeks and potato -- a pretty garden. Indeed, Longworth, 28, treats seafood and fish with respect. One of my best lunches in recent memory involved his striped bass, its skin crunchy with dried rice flakes, or poah. A brilliant yellow curry emulsion and pureed cauliflower circle the steamy entree, whose base brings together earthy lentils, chickpeas and roasted eggplant, a combination that races from sweet to sharp as it's eaten.

The chef also has a way with meat and fowl. Thick, richly flavored rack of lamb takes on an Indian accent with basmati rice, a lashing of yogurt and fruit chutney. Cashews in the rice, which is colorful with bits of carrot, are toasted and better for it; the sauteed spinach alongside the meat is Popeye's dream come true. Someone else at the table should order Longworth's chicken (and hopefully share a taste). The crisp-skinned bird, strewn with dainty balls of carrot, bright green peas and fava beans, is as succulent as they come. The centerpiece is staged atop soft polenta enriched with mascarpone and, for balance, offered with ramp relish, a salute to spring.

Like many of his peers, the chef serves pasta as a meatless option, and to be honest, his cavatelli are doughier than ideal. Still, the soft nuggets are lifted from the ordinary with the help of a sunny egg on top and some beautifully cooked and precisely cut vegetables. Bright broccoli florets and carrots add vibrancy to an entree that is meaty with oyster mushrooms and tangy with goat cheese. One of a handful of entrees available on 701's three-course, $29.95 pre-theater menu, it's a pleasant encounter, but for pasta I prefer Longworth's al dente spaghetti arranged with sweet shrimp, clams and a head-on prawn (which seafood aficionados know to tackle with gusto, by sucking out the tasty insides). A dusting of chili flakes on the spaghetti heats up the action, while garlic bread lined with prosciutto adds an indulgent note. (The pre-dinner bread basket, however, is a bore.)

Like much of what comes before, dessert involves uncommon shapes. The carrot cake arrives as a slender bar, trailed on a long white plate with pistachio sabayon and a square of orange-flavored gelee. Poppyseed cake is cut into rectangles, which are used to fence in a scoop of caramelized white chocolate ice cream. Neither is exceptional. Pie is a rare treat on the restaurant scene, so I was excited to encounter a wedge with rhubarb early last month. It was just okay. The last course at 701 turns out to be a lesser experience.

The room, elegant in soft blues and browns, is fresh again. Curved booths and see-through metal curtains carve the vast space into intimate sections, and (hey, party planners!) one of two private dining rooms looks onto the impressive fountain of the Navy Memorial. Some nights, live music (piano on Thursday and piano joined by bass on the weekends) gives 701 the air of a cocktail party. Whether invigorated by the refreshed digs or the upgraded menu, the dining room staff demonstrates renewed polish and confidence.

The rethought 701 mostly snaps, crackles and pops.

* * *

Midday Bargain: Consider lunch at the bar, where there's a choice of five entrees and a glass of wine for $15.

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Major credit cards. Valet parking Monday through Saturday nights $8.
Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $8 to $14, entrees $13 to $24; dinner appetizers $8 to $16, entrees $20 to $34.

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