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In Penn Quarter, which has become a magnet for D.C.’s best restaurants, 701 was an early standard-setter, offering classy American fare since 1990 in a spacious setting next to the Navy Memorial at 701 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. But last year, as our waiter confessed one recent evening, the food at 701 had begun to slip. That admission surprised us because he was telling this while we were eating a terrific dinner. The explanation? In January, owner Ashok Bajaj hired a new star chef, Bobby Varua, who seems to have turned the place around with meticulously prepared food that is a feast for the eyes and palate. And that, in turn, should have been no surprise. Bajaj, one of the city’s smartest restaurateurs, has yet to open a mediocre eatery in the nation’s capital, so he was unlikely to let 701 slip very far. His other properties: Bombay Club, Oval Room, Ardeo, Bardeo, and Rasika. Varua has worked in top restaurants in New York, Chicago, and California, and alongside the likes of Charlie Palmer and Daniel Boulud, so he was ready to take on one of D.C.’s prime locations. But wisely, not everything at 701 has changed; Mo’s Bar, which has been listed among the top bars in the country, remains in the hands of Mo Taheri, and on most nights a jazz pianist or ensemble fills the room pleasantly, with familiar, relaxing music. The dining space at 701 is welcoming, comfortable, and not too loud. With big windows and a spread-out feel, the room is great for conversation that you can actually hear. For my last visit, at lunchtime, it was warm enough to sit outside, a great spot to look out over Pennsylvania Avenue. The sun got intense enough to turn our butter plate into a puddle of yellow, but we were happy. OPENING ACT Salads are the star opening act at 701. Try the kataifi-crusted shrimp with apple and endive salad and an orange-spiked dressing ($11). Kataifi, we learned, is basically shredded phyllo dough that adds a nice crunch to the flavorful shrimp. The multicolored beet salad with goat cheese fritters ($10) was also terrific, as was the chilled asparagus salad ($9), with fat asparagus spears complemented by vinaigrette and ricotta insalata. The Caesar salad had a nice chopped salad quality to it — instead of large lettuce leaves — with garlicky croutons and a sharp dressing. Other appetizers were great, too. The crab croquettes — small and tender, each one a large biteful — were served with mustard and an avocado mousse. They come as an appetizer for $13 or as a main course for $25. The caviar sampler ($20) offered an array of domestic varieties, a dollop of each with all the right garnishes. Among the main courses, we loved the beef cheek ravioli ($18) with a rich butternut squash sauce set off by crispy bits of guancale, a sort of pork cheek pancetta. All the meat dishes were standouts as well, except for a sirloin steak ($30) that was somewhat tough and undercooked — but then, it’s not my favorite cut of beef. But a pile of lamb chops was perfectly cooked, as was a veal chop, pricey but exceptionally tender at $34. The standout entree was a whimsical “surf and turf” dish — a combination of flavorful glazed duck breast and a seafood mousseline, accompanied by a molten sweet potato and goat cheese concoction ($28). Desserts were great too; there’s a new pastry chef in the house, New Englander Christine Plante. A tart key lime pie topped with blueberry coulis, and a sampler of sorbets (passion fruit, coconut, and strawberry the night we were there) were refreshing choices, and a warm chocolate cake with cherry compote was plenty decadent. (All desserts were $8.) At one point during the dinner, I realized that all four of us were eating from plates of different size and shape — a quirky practice that I saw repeated in other visits. After our review visit, I asked the chef about it, and he actually said he likes to look at the plate first and then design the dish — the food — to fit. It sounds like an artist picking a frame before deciding what to paint, but hey — it works. WHO WANTS A DRINK? The service during our main visit was impeccable, delivered by Brock, a funny guy who broke the ice by asking us, “Anyone want a drink as much as I do?” Maybe that’s an old line that’s annoying to some, but Brock was able to pull it off. Throughout the evening he appeared at all the right times and none of the wrong times. Brock had a distinctive voice, and my tablemates and I struggled to figure out who he sounded like. Pathetic D.C. geek that I am, I insisted his voice was like that of journalist and commentator Stuart Taylor Jr., but everyone else was guessing it was a comedian from “Saturday Night Live” whose name we could not recall. Brock solved the mystery, acknowledging that people often tell him he sounds like comic Norm MacDonald. Well, yeah, him and Stuart, too. Varua’s handiwork makes 701 even more worth a visit than before, and he seems like the kind of chef who will continue to surprise and please. And there’s one more surprise in his background. He majored in criminal justice at a college in New York before heading to restaurant school. When I asked him about it, Varua laughed and pointed vaguely toward the FBI building. “I should be working there, not here,” he said. But for the sake of the D.C. dining scene, we can be glad that he ended up here, not there.
Tony Mauro, who covers the Supreme Court for Legal Times , has also reviewed restaurants for more than 30 years.

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