January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

No. 60: Equinox

Can an expense-account restaurant be a neighborhood restaurant? Just blocks from the White House, chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff-Gray’s upscale mom-and-pop has long been a go-to restaurant for the ruling class, a quiet refuge where pols and pundits come to stash the BlackBerries and relax (briefly) over bottles of Bordeaux and elegant plates of food that seldom require explanation from the waitstaff—and seldom inspire long analysis at the table.

At its best, Gray’s cooking, which looks to showcase first-rate Mid-Atlantic ingredients in a style informed by French rigor and Italian simplicity, is clear, focused, and sometimes brilliant (his pan-fried gnocchi is tops in a suddenly gnocchi-mad city). As often as not, though, his plates, while always the epitome of tastefulness, are as subdued as the earth-toned dining room. Most of the culinary energy these days seems focused on amusés and starters: a crisp little risotto fritter; a tiny cup of brilliant red-pepper soup; a plate of supremely creamy Virginia grits spritzed with black-truffle jus and crowned with royal-trumpet and honey-cap mushrooms; open-face ravioli with a pristine array of roasted corn, green beans, and cherry tomatoes, a perfectly fried soft-shell crab perched jauntily on top.

The drop-off between smaller and bigger courses can be steep. A West Coast sturgeon is oddly textured and gelatinous. A Carolina trout with parsnip chowder is lackluster. Likewise, a rack of pork reads more luscious than it tastes. If not for the grilled Amish-chicken breast with slow-cooked leg and the balsamic-glazed quail, you might wonder if the power is beginning to flicker in this power-dining bastion. Perhaps dividing kitchen duties is the culprit—chef Gray has recently brought Ethan McKee aboard as chef de cuisine. Or maybe the kitchen needs to refocus and rejigger.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.