The entree isn’t an exact copy. No one has to wait 35 minutes, like at Palena, for the bird, and it isn’t cooked over a wood grill. But the former White House chef still infuses the chicken with what he calls “your pantry” — warm spices, citrus peels, celery — for several days and for divine effect. Soft, onion-laced potatoes and glossy wilted spinach elevate the eating.
Annabelle brings to 10 the number of restaurants in Bajaj’s empire and takes the place of Restaurant Nora, the pioneering organic statement from Nora Pouillon, in Dupont Circle. The successor opens with a small retro bar and continues with a series of dining rooms that look like a million bucks (or more). The owner has been carrying the name around with him ever since his younger days in London, home to the famous nightclub Annabelle’s. “I like the sound of it,” says Bajaj. I like the look of the place, which pops with color (fuchsia chairs, plants suspended from on high) and includes a rear Garden Room that Bajaj calls his favorite landing place. Cascading ivy and a skylight contribute to the coziness of the atrium.
The night my posse dropped by, so many customers were taking pictures of the plates in front of them that Annabelle appeared to be hosting a gaggle of social influencers. Some of us just wanted to record for friends who couldn’t be there the dishes they shouldn’t miss. Ruta’s salads include artful landscapes that bring together candy stripe beets, creamy avocado mousse and almonds. Even his duck breast, which benefits from dry-aging in a downstairs cellar, could be a candidate for a close-up. The plate serves as a canvas for blushing meat, braised endive, sweet quince and a light but lively reduction of poultry stock, juniper and lemon zest. Playful details turn familiar dishes into talking points. A prawn cocktail shows up with crisp little chips created from ground shrimp and tapioca flour.
It wouldn’t be a Ruta restaurant without gnocchi. In his new workspace, the chef reminds us of his Italian roots and his signature touch with potatoes, flour and what Ruta calls “a decent amount of butter.” All I know is his gnocchi, nestled in a bowl with nuggets of smoky blue cheese, toasted hazelnuts and pear — what a concert! — is the gold standard in Washington. No sooner do the rich little pillows hit your tongue than they seem to melt.
Of the two vegetarian appetizers, a healthful-tasting barley soup garnished with pumpkin seeds would be pleasant anywhere else, but suffers from comparison here.
If I have an issue with anything, it’s the dopey way Ruta’s finery is presented on the menu, under literary headings including “theme,” “preface,” “setting,” “the plot thickens” (ugh!) and “footnotes.” The titles detract from an otherwise sophisticated experience.
Ruta — recruited by his employer after the chef’s time at Mirabelle to help shape Modena — has a fine partner in Aja Cage. The pastry chef, who has worked at Ris in the West End and Salt Tavern in Baltimore, brings dinner to some light and luscious conclusions. Goat cheese cheesecake on a pool of harissa-kissed honey, and a pavlova set atop roasted pineapple and alongside passion fruit sorbet are welcome sights after a splurge entree.
Early reports that Ruta would be serving a consommé, similar to the one Nancy Reagan enjoyed in the White House, and a hamburger, just like he did at the bar at Palena, had some fans grumbling after the doors opened. Those beloved dishes haven’t made their way to the menu yet. Anticipating a rush, and aiming for smooth sailing, the principals decided not to roll out all Ruta’s greatest hits right away.
For now, that leaves almost everything else on the menu — plenty to explore.
2132 Florida Ave. NW. 202-916-5675. annabelledc.com. Entrees, $26 to $36.
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