EQUINOX -- 818 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. 202-331-8118. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $9, entrees $12 to $14; dinner appetizers $6 to $9, entrees $16 to $19. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $75 per person.
For most of this decade, Todd Gray has been cooking at the pinnacle: He's been chef at Galileo. You say you thought Roberto Donna held that title? Yes, and he still does. But Gray was the one who ran the kitchen day after day, a position sometimes called chef de cuisine or executive chef. The style and recipes might have been Donna's, but Gray was at the stove. Donna supervised the enterprise -- from near and far. It's a confusing business, being a chef in this age of cell phones and jet travel.
When a chef like Todd Gray opens his own restaurant, it's hard to know what to expect. Will he be reproducing menus from Galileo, one of the most expensive and ambitious restaurants this city has seen? Will his food be star-quality, his cooking as worthy? How much of what you may have tasted at Galileo represented the talent of Todd Gray? Can he create on his own?
Gray's new restaurant, Equinox, was two months old on my most recent visit. What became clear was that it's still evolving. Running your own kitchen is more difficult than executing someone else's ideas -- and running an entire restaurant is harder still. My bet is that Equinox will mature significantly over the next year.
Already, though, Gray has shown uncommon wisdom. Most chefs in his position seem to reason that, since they were "ghost-cooking" for a celebrated chef in the old restaurant, their new place warrants all the glamour and glory they left behind. They reach for the stars and charge the sun and the moon.
Gray has been modest. In fact, I can't think of another chef in his position who's had the humility to set out charging a mere $16 to $19 for his entrees. Gray does show off with a six-course tasting menu, but even its $50 tab is not particularly extravagant considering all the morels, foie gras, sweetbreads and truffles that go into it. The wine list is similarly modest and intently American.
Gray's new restaurant is not beautiful, his cooking is not elaborate. It's not even Italian. Nor does the restaurant have an elegant style. It's the old Barrister, with a glassed-in front that's far from chic. Gray is trying his hand at feeding people for everyday meals rather than special occasions or expense-account entertaining. You don't need a jacket and tie.
Greeting diners in the first months has been Gray's wife, Ellen, clearly expecting a baby. When she's not at the door, a succession of young women take over, dressed as if called on a come-as-you-are basis. The servers, too, show more enthusiasm than polish. Formality is probably not even part of the vocabulary here. The front dining room draws a raucous crowd looking for fun on the town, and they gather at large tables with shirt collars open, ties askew and drinks flowing. In the rear, a more sedate mood is set by neutral walls decorated with no more than a chair rail and a few sconces that look like outsize chanterelle mushrooms. The leather-upholstered booths are roomy, the small pewter table lamps throw a gentle light.
Your first sampling of Gray's style is misleadingly cute. Set beside the bread basket are two large pewter spoons, one filled with honey butter, the other with fruit butter, the likes of pear or peach. They prepare you for the inescapable sweetness that inspires Gray and so many other modern American chefs.
The appetizer list begins with a folksy notion, a grilled cheese sandwich, one that would ring familiar to any 10-year-old, even with its driblet of truffle vinaigrette and with Gruyere substituting for American cheese. Several other appetizers are equally simple: a platter of mixed smoked fish, for example, or an arrangement of fine Virginia ham with dried figs and arugula. They show Gray as a careful buyer but don't say much about his cooking. For that, look to the whole wheat polenta -- coarse-grained yet nearly weightless -- piled with lean shreds of duck confit in a reduced brown sauce with shavings of Parmesan. It's an astute matching of textures and flavors. And when Gray does soft-shells, he shows gold-medal talent. They're plump, juicy little crabs unfettered by any coating, on a bed of vinegared baby kale that's free of bitterness and irresistible. Could the same chef have concocted a yellow pepper soup that, though gorgeous, tastes so watery and acrid?
With each visit, Gray's entrees have become more sure-handed, or maybe I've made luckier choices. Early on, the Muscovy duck was wrapped in limp, fatty skin and its sweet orange sauce had no balance, no contrast, no bite. Barbecued shrimp were grand, fresh crustaceans, but their best qualities were drowned out by a harsh, salty barbecue sauce. Next time I tried pretty pink loins of lamb coated with green herbs, but found their delicacy was overpowered by strong braised fennel. Halibut was a glistening fillet on a bed of homey, bacon-flavored braised cabbage, no dazzler but nice food.
Finally, my table picked a round of winners. Juicy salmon was rubbed with barbecue spices heavy on the cumin, then cooked just right and surrounded by fresh corn puree. Tuna, seared outside and properly raw inside, rested on a bed of lush tomatoes, sweet onions and mustard sprouts. The dish I liked best, though, showed Gray's Italian connection. Wide noodles tossed with plenty of chanterelles and shavings of artichoke were bathed in rosemary butter, just enough to turn it all velvety and aromatic. I'd also recommend a side dish of that uncommonly succulent kale.
Desserts play to a grilled-cheese sensibility. The brownie is dark and intensely sweet, with excellent vanilla ice cream and a thin bittersweet chocolate sauce that sometimes runs to graininess. Lemon pound cake must have a pound and a half of sugar, but keeps good company with coconut sorbet. Creme brulee is a bit lightweight. For a genuinely light dessert, there's mango sorbet with blueberries. Since every meal is followed by house-made chocolate chip cookies, any virtuous restraint is rewarded. It's the American way.
Bombay Bistro in Fairfax was decimated by a fire earlier this year, but has reopened and is ready to celebrate. From Wednesday through September 24 it's presenting "Dakshin," a south Indian food festival in the form of a buffet dinner from 5 to 10:30 each night, for $15.95 per person. Look for Syrian lamb fry and coconut stew from Kerala, chicken in the style of the Bunt community in Mangalore, goat curry from Andhra Pradesh, pulled-dough bread from the Malabar Coast, and regional salads such as cucumber-mustard salad with yogurt. It will be a rare chance to try the home-style dishes of all the regions of south India. -- P.C.R.