Of all the restaurants that Ashok Bajaj owns, I had always ranked 701 at the bottom, mostly because I had never been there, but also because, I’ll admit, its address right on Pennsylvania Avenue made me think it was catering to government fat cats, not serious diners. My first visit to 701 has reshaped my thinking pretty seriously.
I’m obviously not ready to leapfrog 701 over Bajaj’s prized properties—-Rasika or The Oval Room—-but after just one visit, I’d say it competes well or surpasses some of the meals I’ve had at Ardeo or The Bombay Club. Even more to its credit, 701 impressed me on a day when I least expected it: A weekday smack dab in the middle of D.C. Restaurant Week, that biannual lap dance of a promotion, in which eateries promise an orgasmic meal on the cheap, but mostly just bounce on your leg for $35.
I’ll tell you this about my three-course meal at 701: If you had told me the place had decided to skip Restaurant Week this year and just offer its usual service, I would have believed you. Nothing about the experience felt like a cheat.
Chef Bobby Varua has created a special Restaurant Week dinner menu, and it isn’t just a caricature of his normal one, one of those striped-down menus with downsized portions to match. No, Varua is offering eight different appetizers and nine entrees; I’ve seen regular menus with fewer items. Sure, there’s no foie gras au torchon or filet mignon with sweet potato/bone-marrow souffle, but Varua doesn’t exactly scrimp on ingredients, either. You can get Muscovy duck breast, New Zealand lamb chops, and even “coconut braised lobster.” The portions are more than ample.
The only stinker of the night was my spinach pappardelle, and that’s because the vongole clams had turned to something that only Goodyear could love; otherwise, I was pleased with the flavors of the gorgeous green pasta lounging in its light, spicy Thai-chile sauce. One of my dining companions ordered the lamb risotto, a version that looked more like something designed to clean out the pantry than one to ferry flavors atop moist, fatten arborio rice. Still, it was delicious. The same diner’s soy mustard-glazed salmon was buttery soft and paired with a luxurious lemon sabayon. My own Pocono Lake trout, prepared as a crepe-like mousseline, was the tiniest bit dry, but the pickled white grapes and tarragon beurre blanc added more than enough moisture to the light, delicate fish preparation.
And get this: When I was stuck on what wine to order with my trout mousseline, the waiter actually brought over the sommelier. I spoke with a real, live sommelier on Restaurant Week! Granted, the zweigelt he recommended didn’t work that well with the trout, its big fruity tartness proving too powerful for the poor little fish, but the sommelier did read me like a book. He at first tried to steer me to a white wine, but, without me saying a word, he instead recommended the red. Hell, you usually can’t get that kind of sensitive assistance at twice the price.