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Last November, 2941--one of the area's most formal destination dining rooms--announced it was taking the culinary equivalent of a trip to an ashram. It would close for three weeks and return more welcoming and more laid-back. Goodbye, $115 tasting menus. Hello, jeans and walk-ins.
The reboot sounded smart. The soaring, glassy dining room's buzz had been dying down--in 2011 it dropped from sixth to 18th in our ranking of Washington's 100 Very Best Restaurants. More and more, its special-occasion dining formula seemed like a relic.
But sky-high tabs and an air of haughtiness weren't 2941's only drawbacks in this era of no-reservations bistros. Also tough to overcome has been its location--on the ground floor of an office building deep in the woods of Falls Church. "You're taking me to General Dynamics?" a friend said as I steered my car past the sign at the driveway to dinner. Despite a softly lit koi pond outside, the corporate-dining-room vibe is hard to shake.
So what does 2941 version 2.0 hold? Some new decorative touches, for one. Gone is the Chihuly-like glass "jellyfish" dripping from the ceiling. Now you'll find an amethyst geode as big as a dinner chair and a Titian-esque painting that looks as if it was squirreled away from a megamansion on The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Sumptuous velvet banquettes have been pushed aside to make way for high-topped tables and freestanding booths upholstered in a dizzying pattern.
There's now more emphasis on the bar--it has a flat-screen TV--where on a recent Friday night rival NCAA fans were smack-talking and buying one another beers. A freshly drawn-up cocktail list mixes such classics as mai tais and sidecars with creative drinks like the Man Overboard, an elegant riff on a piña colada.
Bertrand Chemel, who came down from Daniel Boulud's New York empire four years ago to man the kitchen, is still there. Chemel's cooking has always been rooted in his native France, but now more than ever he's broadening his global reach. In the snacky "nosh" section of the menu--the categories get sillier from there (desserts are "naughty")--there are shares including an excellent tuna tartare bound with Grand Marnier mayo, topped with slivers of jalapeño, and served on a taro chip as well as a less appealing pot of bland "labneh," equal parts ricotta and the thick Lebanese yogurt it's named for. Tiny croquettes of truffled mac and cheese were breaded in panko and deep-fried but suffered from the same dullness. Well-seasoned Wagyu sliders cried out for more than the swipe of piquillo aïoli that adorned the wooden serving board.
If all that sounds like a big departure from the way things used to be, the differences are less evident in the dining room, where service remains super-serious and the wine list skews expensive. Much of the dinner menu feels close to the old 2941--dishes are just a little less intricate and grandly presented.
Focus on the pastas, with which Chemel has always been masterful. There's a gorgeous tangle of fettuccine with a saffron-and-paprika-tinted broth, nubs of lobster, and slivers of octopus. Gnocchi, served with vermouth cream and sautéed mushrooms, is more decadently delicious.
Among the entrées, a bowl of jewel-like bay scallops bathed in a frothy emulsion of yuzu, tangerine, and lemon was lovely. But others were less reliable. An orange-glazed duck breast and an herb-marinated lamb loin with thick honey jus were beautifully cooked but candy-sweet. An extended stay on the grill marred a cut of tuna that would have been terrific with its brightly flavored ginger sauce. An appetizer of foie gras featured duck liver that was faint on richness and smothered in thick huckleberry sauce, while mushroom soup capped with a froth of sunchoke purée tasted mostly of milk and cream.
I left my first two dinners at the revamped 2941, where both tabs for two ran more than $250, feeling like it was a restaurant caught in an identity crisis--a Zegna-suited businessman suddenly embracing casual Friday. But then I went for lunch, and one dish seemed the perfect symbol of what the place is trying to be. It was a burger with a patty fashioned from ground duck and foie gras. Instead of cheese, it was laden with thin, melty slices of more foie gras, which had been cured with five kinds of pepper. The freshly baked bun was shiny with olive oil, and a thick agrodolce--onions braised with Banyuls vinegar, sugar, and espelette peppers--was the perfect condiment. It was exactly the right synthesis of high and low, ambitious and relaxed. It was easily the best thing I ate.
If only the rest of the place came together so seamlessly.
This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.
Related:A Burger a Day in May: 2941's Daffy Burger