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Politics, not food, has been the dominant story of the 3-year-old Signatures. Lobbyist and owner Jack Abramoff once told the New York Times that he envisioned the restaurant, just seven blocks from the White House, as a sort of playpen for the wining and dining of politicos. But as Abramoff’s power-brokering rep tumbled this year under allegations of outlandish improprieties, many of those pols have stayed away, unwilling to tar themselves by association.

Any day now, the restaurant’s lease is expected to be transferred to four new owners—including former Republican Rep. Bob Livingston. As Congress returns to town—and with it the rest of official Washington—the lawyers, legislators, and lobbyists are expected to find their way back to Signatures, too.

Now that the questions of propriety have been largely resolved, attention can be directed at what has been, for me, an equally troubling matter: What is chef Morou Ouattara—a freewheeling, playful spirit who can make a dish like peanut-butter-and-jelly shrimp (grilled shrimp in a Thai-style dipping sauce with a tart mango jelly on the side) rise above mere gimmickry—doing in a place like this?

In recent weeks, I experienced as odd a push-pull as I’ve felt at any restaurant—and by push-pull I’m not referring to the practice of balancing strong, competing flavors that talented chefs such as Morou (he goes by a single name) employ to engage their diners.

On the one hand, there was my joy at discovering a carrot-ginger soup that was gloriously devoid of cheating: Instead of relying on that tiresome failsafe, cream, to provide body, Morou creates a thick base by boiling the carrots until they can be mashed with a spoon. The initial sweetness of the carrot yields to a currylike undercurrent of ginger, cumin, and lemongrass. A zigzag of beet yogurt adds extra tang. It was one of the best soups I’d eaten in years. In the proper showcase—an intimate space where the food is the focus—my fellow diners would have been swooning over it.

Here? Nobody seemed to notice. The restaurant—all mahogany wood and Wedgewood blue and drawing-room-style upholstery—bespeaks a starchy, old-Washington formality that even Morou’s forward-thinking cooking cannot quite overcome. I watched as a group of well-heeled lobbyist types stroked their silk ties and talked on their cell phones at happy hour, oblivious to the delicacies on offer. Rarely has a chef been so ill-matched with his environment.

And rarely has fine dining been so lacking in refinement. One night, a waiter arrived balancing our plates so precariously on his forearm that instead of oohing at Morou’s carefully wrought architecture, we feared for our food and our laps. My guests preceding me for lunch one afternoon were forced to stand and wait while the staff tried to accommodate our party—as if the concept of a reservation hadn’t quite sunk in.

So why am I advocating putting up with the cheerless, airless, and frequently thoughtless atmosphere?

Because of that soup, yes. And because of the soft-shell-crab tempura. The crab is sweet and firm, and the frying is perfect—greaseless and crunchy—but what makes the plate memorable are its side-by-side slicks of sauce: an Old Bay emulsion and a smear of black mustard. Swab the soft-shell through one, then the other, and you’ll swear you’re digging into an aggressively seasoned hard-shell. It’s defamiliarization, but of a most reassuring kind.

Eating the cooking of the Ivory Coast– born Morou is like reading a foreign-born author explore his adopted tongue with gleeful abandon: a Nabokov of the stockpots. At Red Sage in the late ’90s, he could indulge his flair for exotic meats and fishes. Here, obligated to service a meat-and-potatoes crowd, he expresses himself best in his embellishments. Order the salmon at dinner and what appears to be a conventional take on New American cooking arrives; then you dig into its pile of crispy-fried fermented-yuca “couscous” and smoky tomato reduction and realize you’re eating a clever riff on Moroccan. Perfectly seared scallops are intentionally upstaged by an intriguing hash of chorizo, raisins, onions, and red peppers—all the elements of a lusty Cuban picadillo.

Many of Morou’s best effects are subtle touches—like the thin line of cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper adorning a plate of goat-cheese-filled beignets that neatly straddles the distinction between sweet and savory. Or the pencil shavings of dried bonito that dust the plate of grilled calamari, providing the diner a chance to customize the saltiness and fishiness of the dish.

Occasionally, though, plates are too busy, crammed with too many details. A succulent rack of lamb comes accessorized with roasted eggplant, roasted tomato, a fava-bean fondue, and a streak of miso-mustard sauce. A spice-crusted waluu, interesting all by itself, is encircled by both a Vidalia-onion purée and a version of mole. What’s really called for, in both instances, is focus—a simple, declarative sentence, not a ream of purple prose.

And as good as Signatures’ sushi can be, I wish Morou would consider either dropping the prices—$10 for a six-piece roll?—or dropping the raw stuff altogether. Trying to be all things to all people is the classic Washington trap. Let’s see: an expense-account den, a happy-hour watering hole, a sushi bar, and—oh, yeah—a fine-dining destination.

The only one worth saving is the last. And only because of its inspired chef. Boycott Abramoff. Free Morou.

Signatures, 801 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-628-5900.—Todd Kliman

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