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Despite its being a power joint by virtue of its so-close-you-might-as-well-be-able-to-see-it proximity to the White House, there’s something vaguely small-town about Equinox. I’m loath to use the term “family-friendly,” but the fact is that there are moms and dads here with Game Boy-toting kids at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. Their incentive? Well, there’s the inviting and very pregnant woman at the door, co-owner Ellen Gray, a sweet hostess who openly hopes that her plans to see Springsteen won’t be foiled by husband Todd’s reluctance to leave the kitchen. Todd would, of course, be Todd Gray, the other owner, the one whom a bartender refers to as “Chef,” as in “Chef’s a good guy” and “Everyone likes Chef.”
Equinox is what happens when Mom and Pop open a restaurant near the center of the universe. Granted, Mom previously built a career in the food business after traveling extensively overseas, and Pop’s last gig was running the kitchen at Galileo, the most decorated Italian restaurant in Washington. But with Equinox, the Grays cannily soften the primness that comes with the address (the only 20-something diners I notice eating here are going on 40) with subtle hints that you should ignore your better instincts and make yourself at home (like a magazine rack next to the toilet). Sure, the grilled cheese oozes Gruyere and arrives on a plate dappled with truffle vinaigrette. But it is grilled cheese.
The luxe-lite setting is fitting; it speaks to chef Gray’s confidence. Pretty much anyone who opens an American restaurant of some profile these days purports to do what Gray’s doing—namely, compose a seasonal menu with straight-from-the-vine ingredients. But Gray doesn’t seem to be copping to trends so much as he’s just cooking what he thinks is good. The Equinox dining room is by no means dowdy; it’s just not in-your-face. Same goes for the food.
Gray is finicky about presentation (just try not to gasp at the yellow pepper soup flecked with red bits of roe and a swirl of green basil oil), but one of his main virtues is that he doesn’t fancy himself a painter; this is not the kind of restaurant you’ll leave bitching about all the impertinent sauce squiggles. The best starters are minimalist affairs: A brush of greens over juicy melon with a Parmesan crown. Prosciutto-like Surry ham paired with figs and a tangle of baby arugula. Garlic-and-thyme-scented shiitakes served with nothing but a scoop of simple mashed potatoes. In some ways, it’s high-risk cuisine; you can’t hide faults when you’re serving food this unadorned. The jumbo shrimp on the lunch menu are certainly jumbo, but they’ve seen better days—as has the accompanying shaved fennel. And the braised kale offered as a side dish would be better if it were still green.
Whether it’s a sign of his personal taste or a concession he made to please the masses, Gray has largely resisted the urge to innovate over his customers’ heads. It’s refreshing. Equinox doesn’t deal in bargains, but for a chef of Gray’s stature,
the prices are reasonable. (The entrees are under $20, the starters under $10.) Fittingly, the most successful main attractions taste ripped from the notebook of some three-star home cook.
Take the barbecued salmon. I generally hate it when backyard Weber hacks slather my fish in goo meant for tougher meats, but Gray makes the dish sing. The salmon’s thick and succulent, the barbecue sauce plays well against the roasted peppers and corn sauce—and everybody’s ordering it. The mint-flavored jus puddling around the lamb medallions takes me back to the first time I ever tried the stuff. The hanger steak on the lunch menu is rosy, robust, and—this is the best part—fenced in by a timber pile of snack-chip-crisp shoestring potatoes. Interestingly enough, given that Gray built his reputation sustaining Roberto Donna’s at Galileo, one of his few pasta dishes bombs. The broad noodles are perfect, and the chanterelles are golden, but the whole thing is suffocated by enough rosemary to perfume a sack of potatoes.
The people juggling Equinox’s full reservation book could teach a Ph.D. course in anger management—it’s the only way to explain how I could feel pampered waiting 45 minutes for a table in a bar where there’s no room to sit. The rest of the staff ranges from crackerjack to casual to confused. One waitperson insists on countering every one of our wine selections by suggesting a different bottle that costs twice as much, and at dessert she recommends the creme brulee because “it’s light.” I know she’s trying to help, but she’s also lying. We’re not rich, and egg yolks aren’t lo-cal.
Front-of-the-house faux pas are part of every restaurant’s takeoff, but at Equinox, they’re more understandable. How exactly does one sell a menu that features onion rings as well as yellowfin seared until its juices are indistinguishable from those of the tomatoes it’s bedded on? The good news for the Grays is that the answer is right there in the business plan: You don’t. The food sells itself.
Equinox, 818 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 331-8118.
For those in the cult of the late, sometimes great Veneziano, the mourning is over. “Frankly, I quit going out after it closed,” confesses one reader. “Can you believe that it’s back?” He’s referring to San Marco, the restaurant run by Veneziano’s former owners that’s opened in Veneziano’s old space. But it’s not Veneziano. At least not exactly. The menu’s smaller and more pasta-centric—which, in this Italian-deprived town, is actually good news. I bemoan the absence of variety that made Veneziano such a find (what happened to the smelt?), but the simple dishes here, from the squid-ring salad to the creamy spinach risotto, should be enough to entice the shut-in reader to come outside. Best of all, the owner’s still a voracious grappa collector. Order a glass, and chances are he’ll pour you another. And another.
San Marco, 2305 18th St. NW, (202) 483-9300. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.