701 Pennsylvania Avenue
The first establishment I went out to for this season’s Restaurant Week was 701 Restaurant. We scheduled a party of 4 for 8:00 PM on a Friday evening. When we arrived, valet service was easy enough, and the hostess was welcoming and quick to seat us.
The first thing that strikes you about 701 initially is that the interior is playing up a blue theme. It has an ambiance that lends itself to something halfway between a lounge and a restaurant. In addition to this, there is a slightly corporate or suit-and-tie feel to the place, even though attire is really just dressy casual. This is one consistent theme that I find throughout many of DC’s upscale restaurants. They tend to cater to the power-lunches and power-dinners of politicians and businessmen, and their decor reflects that. It’s a somewhat sterile atmosphere that doesn’t quite know what it is and feels a bit lacking in emotion. This could also be explained by the fact that 701 is actually a part of a group of higher-end restaurants in the DC area that are also in the Capitol district. However, 701’s saving grace is the live pianist and bassist duo, who help to keep the energy high in the dining room.
Our server was gracious enough, though he could have been a bit more energetic and slightly more attentive after bringing us our menus. The Restaurant Week deal is that each person can select a prix-fixe three-course meal based upon the menu options. 701’s menu was actually quite varied and offered a great amount of selection, with about five options available per course.
We decided to order a bottle of white wine (I forget the name of it), and both our server and the sommelier were gracious enough to explain to us that they had to grab a bottle from the cellar, so that bringing it to our table would take a few minutes longer than usual. It was a nice gesture to see from the front of house.
I went with a frisee salad with red-wine poached pears with goat cheese crumbles and sweet dates. It was nice to see a salad that didn’t consist of spinach or watery lettuce for once. The poached pears were quite nice and firm, and there was a slightly spicy note to them as well. The goat cheese was soft and pungent, and the sweetness of the dates helped to balance the flavor out. Overall, the salad was a great winter offering.
My friends chose to go with a chestnut and mushroom soup and a Spanish mackerel plate. Though I didn’t try either of them, they both looked robust and flavorful, as my friends so readily described. The soup was a sumptuous dark orange, almost tan, color and had a nice consistency. The mackerel was thinly sliced and almost like a carpaccio, though I do believe the fish was either smoked or seared.
The presentation and service on the first courses was solid and as expected.
Now here’s where the strength of 701’s kitchen really shone. I ordered the porcini-crusted lamb shoulder with cabbage and celery root puree. Typically, most restaurant won’t serve a lamb shoulder as a solid piece of meat but rather in a stew or some sort of ragout. However, 701 believed in their braised lamb so much that they served it as a single piece, and they got it spot on. The shoulder fell apart beautifully as the knife sliced through it, and the cabbage and celery root cut through the richness of the meat just the right amount. The porcini crust gave the lamb a great crunch to match the tenderness of the meat and a smokiness to enhance the lamb’s gamey flavor. This dish was certainly the highlight of my visit.
My friends ordered a handmade Garganelli (rolled pasta) dish with braised rabbit ragout and red snapper with risotto. Again, I didn’t get to taste the dishes, but they looked well sorted out, and my friends were quite pleased with the flavors and textures.
To end the meal, I ordered a maple walnut cake. I had high expectations for the finish, as the main was so delicious. However, the cake came out dry and a bit lacking in flavor. The honey-based sauce served with the cake was quite nice and not overpowering. While the dessert wasn’t a total failure, it certainly wasn’t memorable either.
My friends ordered a variety of desserts, ranging from profiteroles to a lemon-poppy cake to a chocolate mousse. Out of those, the lemon-poppy cake and mousse were definitely the better presented and better tasting ones. We could tell the pastry chef definitely considered them to be the stars of the show.
701 is one of those restaurants that is great for entertaining out-of-town guests and power-players. The ambiance lends itself to quiet and modest conversation, and the service is a bit relaxed and not overwhelming. On the same point, service could use a bit more energy and personal attention. The food had great flavors, and the presentation of the dishes was well thought out. Overall, I’d recommend 701 as a great place for a business lunch or a classic DC night out with friends. the food was inspired but could use something additional to really raise it to another level.