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The palate of K Street’s power brokers is widely regarded as, well, plebeian. Steak and potatoes. Potatoes and steak. An adventurous meal features chicken. For an ambitious chef like West African-born Morou Ouattara, that meant innovation was out and Americana was in. Ouattara, the former chef at Jack Abramoff’s Signatures restaurant, spent a great deal of time transforming elementary offerings such as macaroni and cheese and even popsicles for his customers, who at the end of the day hungered for the familiar and paid handsomely for it: The menu boasted a $74 steak and a $140 tasting menu, a series of plates highlighting the chef’s most celebrated creations. “We twisted things around,” says Ouattara. “Everyone loves popsicles, so we made a grown-up version. We gave them mac and cheese and ended up putting a lot more into it than mac and cheese deserves. But instead of bringing in foams and escargots and these things that people would not want to try, we went back and worked on people’s memories.” Today memories are all that is left of Signatures. The most indelible one of all was Abramoff himself, holding forth at a large circular table at the front of the Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant, laptop and BlackBerry carefully arranged before him, greeting and kibitzing with Washington insiders. Abramoff’s presence at his favorite Signatures table may not be straight out of a Mario Puzo novel, but it’s close. Ironically, the business discussed there would have a significant — and ultimately lethal — effect on the 40-50 chefs, cooks, waiters, and busboys who circled the fallen lobbyist. And given that Abramoff’s haute cuisine is likely to come courtesy of a prison cafeteria in the near future, his former employees have moved on to other jobs and his customers to other eateries. Signatures sits empty, locked tight since November. Its tables and fixtures remain in place — like a ghost town. �TONGUE IN THAT CHEEK’ The restaurant was a favorite of Republican power brokers such as Reps. Bob Ney of Ohio and Dana Rohrabacher of California and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, whose meals were often complimentary. Lawyers, lobbyists, and several lawmakers took advantage of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free food and liquor paid for by Abramoff, or so they thought. Those free tabs, according to billing records, were eventually picked up by Abramoff’s defrauded Native American clients. Federal documents indicate the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians paid more than $5,600 for meals, and the Agua Caliente, a California-based tribe, was billed as much as $20,000 a month, most of those dollars going to Signatures meals, according to news reports.
RELATED STORIES
• Abramoff Report Largely Leaves Firm Alone (July 3, 2006)• Another Abramoff Associate to Plead Guilty (June 28, 2006)• Ex-Abramoff Associate Safavian Found Guilty (June 20, 2006)• Gamble on Volz Didn’t Pan Out (May 15, 2006)• K Street Mulls Jack Factor (January 9, 2006)• Abramoff Pleads Guilty (January 3, 2006)• Don’t Know Jack (August 15, 2005)

“I think the initial ownership team drove the name in the marketplace, and then the product they delivered sustained it in the marketplace,” says Mark Walsh, general manager at the neighboring 701 Restaurant & Bar, who notes that people still speak fondly of the restaurant. “It had many private dining rooms that people, ahem, enjoyed.” After a pause, Walsh jokes, “Boy, was there tongue in that cheek.” And enjoyed they did. Despite Signatures’ sunny, open, and transparent feel, the K Street clan flocked to the eatery after it opened, in February 2002. Lobbyists prized its “close to Capitol Hill” location. It was an upscale alternative in a neighborhood featuring stuffier venues such as 701 Restaurant, Capital Grille, and the Caucus Room. Signatures’ two large private rooms, used primarily for fund raising, were an ideal alternative for lobbyists tired of booking far in advance for a room at neighboring haunts. And the half-priced sushi every Tuesday evening, accompanied by live jazz (a rarity in downtown Washington), made the place a popular destination among young Hill staffers and lobbyists. But almost a year after the establishment’s closing, with its cooks, waiters, busboys, and bartenders scattered throughout the D.C. restaurant scene, one undeniable truth remains: The restaurant propelled a rising chef, who began his D.C. culinary career as a dishwasher, into the stratosphere and secured the livelihood of his kitchen team. THE SECRET INGREDIENT The restaurant’s ambience — drab greens and washed-out yellows — was never a draw. “It wasn’t even clubby staid,” recalls Jo-Ann Neuhaus, executive director of the Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association. “I’m not saying it had to be hip and jazzy, but it wasn’t a place people wanted to go because of the d�cor.” And compounding its unoriginal design was the cuisine by the restaurant’s original executive chef, Michael Rosen. It was not contemporary but rather pedestrian, almost complementary of the restaurant’s nondescript atmosphere: South Carolina shrimp and grits and lavender-infused rack of lamb with horseradish mashed potatoes. But Ouattara, who was brought on five months after the restaurant opened to mixed reviews, elevated the cuisine with French, African, and Middle Eastern flavors, and secured his future. Even Neuhaus laments the demise of his BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tuna) sandwich. Signatures allowed Ouattara to soar. It was the first establishment he ever worked for that wasn’t run by someone who thought he knew a lot about food, says Ouattara of the place that gave him significant autonomy to create and fine-tune his cooking style. “Signatures was the right environment for a chef,” he says. “The owner let you do whatever you wanted.” And because of his tenure at Signatures, the award-winning chef has managed to go on to great acclaim. He went to New York City earlier this year with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, to appear on the popular Food Network show “Iron Chef America.” Ouattara went into battle with acclaimed New York chef Bobby Flay, to prepare an entire meal mainly out of frozen peas, the chosen secret ingredient for that episode. He even made a pea popsicle for dessert. And this October, Ouattara will open up his very own eatery, Farrah Olivia by Morou (named after his daughter), in Old Town Alexandria, Va. Ouattara, who originally came to the United States from the Ivory Coast to do computer science, has had a storied rise in the D.C. restaurant scene and has amassed many contacts. He says he was selected to join Signatures because management wanted someone with a name, and Ouattara certainly had that, having served as executive chef at the award-winning Red Sage, a 19,000-square-foot restaurant with 120 tables. CLOSING TIME The curtain started to fall at Signatures last year with Abramoff constantly in the news, and most employees saw what was coming. Last July news reports indicated the restaurant was purchased by Mark Smith of the Da Vinci Group along with partners Republican lobbyist Robert Livingston and Greg Baroni, president of Unisys Global Public Sector. The new venture was called Forward Pass, and Ouattara had a 10 percent financial interest in the alliance. Smith was a friend of Abramoff’s and in the past had contributed to lawmakers caught in the power lobbyist’s cross hairs. Federal Election Commission records indicate he has given to Republican Reps. Joseph Knollenberg of Michigan and Donald Manzullo of Illinois and GOP Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, whose ties to Abramoff forced him last year to announce he was returning more than $150,000 in campaign contributions he received from the powerful lobbyist. At the time of the change in management, Smith, who did not return a phone call by press time, acted as Abramoff Part II, holding court at his friend’s old table, even displaying his laptop. Sources familiar with the inner workings at the time say that management was vocal in its position that the restaurant needed to be busier and make more money. The goal, according to one source close to the management, was to center the restaurant’s revitalization on Ouattara’s innovative cuisine. An official announcement of the new ownership and the addition of another partner, Phil Friedman, president and CEO of Computer Generated Solutions, was slated for late October, but it never came. Media and congressional scrutiny of Abramoff and his dealings at Signatures became intense. By November of last year, Livingston was out, noting that “it was apparent it was not going to be a successful venture for me,” and the restaurant suddenly closed Nov. 16. By then, most of the employees had made preparations to leave, eventually landing at other dining spots nearby, such as the Asian-inspired Ten Penh. But Ouattara, not without his connections, also helped colleagues find employment. Sushi chef Thu Soe, known at Signatures for his tuna tempura, landed at another Penn Quarter hot spot, Oya Restaurant. Soe, who says he began working at Signatures in September 2002, has only been a sushi chef for two years. As Signatures prepared to close its curtains, Ouattara told him to go to Oya, where he knew the management. Despite his relative inexperience, Soe prepared a sushi meal for Oya’s management and eventually got the job as sushi chef. Everyone found employment in Washington’s vast and familial hospitality industry. Still, if Ouattara was worried about anyone finding a job, it was his sous-chef, Eddie Marine, as prominent jobs such as his are harder to find. Ouattara knew Marine from his days at Red Sage, where he was once the private dining chef. But Marine, who is currently executive chef at Red Sage, was lucky. He says he misses Signatures and the “close-knit group of people” he used to work with. Another top member of Ouattara’s team has also been taken care of, Leon Baker. The former Signatures pastry chef will join Ouattara at his new restaurant in Alexandria. Ouattara’s wife will be his general manager. Information on negotiations to sell the Signatures space is being tightly held, but those familiar with the process hint at a wide range of national tenants interested in the space, adding that efforts are being made not to install an eatery that would compete with neighboring 701 Restaurant, which occupies the adjoining property; both spaces are owned by Equity Office Properties Trust. The property features 7,328 square feet of space, and Equity has hired a third-party broker, Trammell Crow Co., to handle the leasing of the restaurant. Peter Pedraza, director of public relations for Equity, says the kitchen is still intact and that the firm is in “earnest negotiations with a prominent restaurateur in D.C.,” but he declined to offer a name. Now that Ouattara’s famed macaroni and cheese — made with Artisanal cheeses along with shiitake mushrooms, corn, crispy bacon, elbow pasta, and rendered fat from pricey Kobe beef — is long gone, one lobbyist laments Signatures’ passing and remembers fondly an establishment that attempted to raise the culinary bar and move K Street denizens beyond their knee-jerk fare. “We all get tired of steak,” he says.


Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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