Tom Sietsema on Equinox and 701: New chapters for two downtown mainstays

WASHINGTON, DC-OCTOBER 15: Risotto Fritters at Equinox Restaurant in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC-OCTOBER 15: Risotto Fritters at Equinox Restaurant in Washington, DC. (Scott Suchman - )
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, November 7, 2010

A periodic update on previously reviewed restaurants.

If you want to get a sense of what's changed at Equinox since it reopened in June after a kitchen fire last December, start dinner with something new: a snack "for the table," perhaps a pizzette. It brings together sheer slices of local pear and a smidge of Gruyere cheese and creme fraiche on five small squares of crust, each piece completed with a frond of micro-fennel and a dusting of Parmesan. The sweet fruit, assertive cheese and pillowy bread make a pleasing combination that tests one's ability to share.

Another way to observe what chef Todd Gray breezily refers to as his "new fresh start" is to order his sliced duck breast. The main course (sometimes it's pheasant) comes with cabbage that's sweet with port and biting with juniper. There are also huckleberries in the equation to tart things up a bit, but the part of the plate that captures my attention is the starch: quartered waffles punched up with minced rosemary, a fun yet elegant twist on the more common chicken and waffles.

Dishes meant to be shared, a lighter approach to the menu: More than before, Equinox wants to be up-to-date. "We bought a new suit but kept the same body," Gray says of the 11-year-old restaurant he co-owns with his wife, Ellen. The basic layout remains, but the couple's post-fire adjustments include an arty limestone-and-granite wall in the main dining room, frosted-glass panels to set off the atrium seating and a hearth that's open on two sides, ready for a cold snap.

Gray's Italian-influenced, modern American cooking has never been about a lot of fireworks, and his fall menu retains the chef's characteristic subtlety. Risotto fritters charm us with their light crunch and a dip of chive creme fraiche. Sauteed shrimp ("sustainable from Peru," a waitress cites its pedigree) are arranged on creamy polenta that gets a nice lift from scallions, garlic slivers and just a touch of heat. Butterfly-shaped farfalle tossed with baby spinach, roasted cipollini onions and chanterelles celebrates the market but also the pasta maker; the dish is meatless but rich, thanks to its foamy butter sauce. Slightly less successful are the half-moon shapes, or mezzaluna pasta; the lamb sausage filling is delicious, but the wrappers are a tad chewy. Slices of marinated leg of lamb, arranged with diamonds of carrots and smoky leeks, are correct and elegant (a black truffle reduction helps). Be sure to fit in the silken apple mousse for dessert. Hinting of Pernod and garnished with crisp fruit, it brings to mind a brisk fall day.

One dish suggests another, lesser kitchen: Scallops aren't just bland, their potato crust resembles hash browns ironed onto seafood. A border of sweet-and-sour eggplant cubes saved the entree from being a complete disappointment. Otherwise meaty sardines show up without their heads, which for a food lover is akin to receiving a porterhouse without a bone, but the chef says the presentation is the result of complaints from customers rather than his personal preference. (A pity. Those diners don't know the flavor they're missing.)

I like the way the kitchen punctuates its meals, slipping classic gougeres in the bread basket and sending out shortbread cookies and fruit jellies ahead of the check. And any entree is better with a side of crisp-creamy eggplant fries or truffled macaroni and cheese, the ultimate comfort food in a restaurant we're happy to see back in action.

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.

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