First Bite: Six months after kitchen fire, Equinox reopens

By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nearly half a year off the clock gives a guy time to think about his future.

Todd Gray wasn't exactly idle in the months following the devastating kitchen fire Dec. 18 that temporarily shuttered his modern American restaurant, Equinox. The chef, his wife and co-owner, Ellen, and their staff used their unexpected unemployment to take inventory of the wine and silverware, clean up the basement of the restaurant, tackle insurance issues and take on some catering.

"Crisis equals opportunity," says the chef, back in the (kitchen) saddle as of June 1 and playing to a full house most nights. While the downtown restaurant was getting a makeover, Gray says, the owners and their team got the chance to address a question: "What are we going to be as Equinox, moving forward?"

A little lighter, it turns out. In part because "people's tastes have changed," says the chef, he's offering more vinaigrettes than butter sauces and emphasizing herb bastes and relishes to dress up his entrees; seared diver scallops, for instance, get a lift from piquillo pepper relish.

Gray continues to offer tasting menus, but he has added dishes "for the table," meant for sharing. The elegant snacks include bite-size risotto fritters showered with Parmesan, sourdough crostini with a silky eggplant dip and crackling spring rolls, sweet with crab and good even without their lemon aioli. (The last was a better catch than a soft-shell crab appetizer, held back by a flat sweet-pea coulis.)

A regular to this upscale den, newly handsome with a wall of limestone and granite in the main dining room, might be more accustomed to seeing rack of lamb than a thrifty cut of beef. This diner would encourage him to check out the $27 flat-iron steak sparked with green peppercorns. Equinox's veal porterhouse is fine, but I have to admit that my affection lies with its escort of potato "tots" sharpened with blue cheese. Come dessert, order a couple of ice cream sandwiches. You'll want seconds of pastry chef Thomas Wellings's elegant pistachio macarons cooled with lemon verbena ice cream.

One detail the owners didn't have to sweat after the fire: the loyalty of their staff. All 37 employees returned for the relaunch.

818 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-331-8118. Lunch entrees, $17-$21; dinner entrees, $26-$34.

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