Until a few months ago, a visitor to 701 encountered faded decor and mostly empty tables. It was time for owner Ashok Bajaj to dust off the plan he’d used to upgrade the Oval Room three years ago when he plucked Tony Conte from his post as executive sous chef at New York’s four-star Jean Georges. This summer, Bajaj raided another famed Manhattan spot, Gotham Bar and Grill, to secure the talents of its chef de cuisine, 28-year-old Adam Longworth.
Bajaj also sprang for an $800,000 renovation, giving the place a supper-club vibe with Tiffany-blue leather chairs, cozy banquettes, and a shimmery wall of hanging silk threads. He’s kept nice touches such as a pianist playing easy-listening renditions of Michael Jackson, and Mo the bartender, who’s been mixing Manhattans here for 19 years.
Longworth’s mentor, Gotham’s Alfred Portale, is known for marrying nouvelle American cuisine with highly intricate presentations. (Ever had a lobster salad fashioned into an obelisk? Blame Portale.) Longworth’s plates are more relaxed but also more complex than they sound. A bisque-like, deeply mushroomy mushroom soup looks ordinary enough, but each spoonful is different—one gets a hit of lemon confit, another takes a swipe of Parmesan custard or catches a toasted pine nut or Parmesan shaving. A wide bowl of clam chowder, one of the best renditions I’ve had, arrives dotted with oyster crackers. But instead of potatoes, the soup holds tiny gnocchi that have been smoked, then roasted. Those oyster crackers are sprinkled with chili flakes, and Serrano ham and house-made bacon accent the Manila clams and earthy, creamy broth.
Fish is one of the kitchen’s strong suits—usually. Halibut served over a mound of rice flavored with lime, coconut milk, carrot, and lemongrass was excellent: The fish was meaty, sweet, and perfectly cooked, and the sweet-and-sour rice was so good I could barely put my fork down. Grilled whole branzino, which servers tout as Longworth’s signature, shows up headless, deboned, and scattered with an array of Spanish-inspired garnishes—Serrano ham, olive-oil-poached potatoes, olives blended with piquillo peppers, and Chardonnay vinegar. One night, the flavors were spot-on; another time, the fish was walloped by the olives’ intense saltiness. A cut of black bass served with red grapes and a verjus emulsion sounded light, but it was like feasting on a stick of butter.
On the meatier side, there’s beautifully roasted lamb with tangy fig chutney but also a flat-tasting pappardelle Bolognese and a too-fatty pork chop.
As at many high-end restaurants, appetizers tend to overshadow the main courses. The steak tartare is top-notch, the minced, grass-fed beef bound with mustard and Tabasco and accented with a rich aïoli spiked with pickled jalapeños and horseradish. Longworth fuses sushi with Vietnamese in his king-crab roll, crunchy with daikon, carrots, and sesame seeds and painted with a vibrant soy-lime-chili sauce. Cubes of raw yellowtail sparkle with white-miso purée and more chili-spiked soy. Spinach salad boasts a nice balance of pears, bacon, goat cheese, and cider vinaigrette. The major flub is the beet salad, which is beautiful but boring.
Every part of the menu—passionfruit mojitos included—tends to be more exciting than dessert. There are flickers of promise: a custardy banana ice cream, a homey cherry-pear crumble. But the warm chocolate cake is messily average, and a goat-cheese cake tastes more aged than airy.
Still, Bajaj’s redo has turned 701 around. It might not be the trendiest place in town, but it’s one of the more comfortable. Reservations aren’t hard to come by, and it feels swankier than its prices—main courses are in the mid-$20s. And finally the food is the reason to put it on your dining-out list.
This review appears in the December, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.