- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Bobby Varua became executive chef of 701 Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue in January and has turned a staid downtown restaurant into a place for exciting dining.

Mr. Varua originally pursued a career in criminal justice but soon moved from the hotbed of crime into the heat of the kitchen. He arrived at 701 with a solid culinary background, having cooked at high-end New York restaurants.

His contemporary American cuisine is a combination of culinary expertise, sophistication and elegance. Presentations are beautiful to behold, and what is on the plate tastes as good as it looks.

Dinner at 701 Restaurant is a delight, from the tinkling sound of a piano greeting diners and the first bite of an amuse bouche offered by the chef to the last spoonful of pastry chef Christine Plante’s chocolate pave or rhubarb-and-strawberry compote surrounding a small almond cake.

My favorite first course is a lobster salad. A small lobster is displayed elegantly, out of the shell, on a plate decorated with a few orange slices, two tiny mounds of melt-in-your-mouth fruit gelees and a lovely wasabi-apple cream. It´s a splendid dish.

Another outstanding starter is shrimp in a crust of kataifi (sometimes called knafa), a Middle Eastern dough that resembles shredded wheat. The orange sauce drizzled on the shrimp adds the right touch of sweetness. The dish is complemented with a cool apple-and-endive slaw.

The ahi tuna roll is set off with smooth grains of tapioca and macerated strawberries; bacon-wrapped scallops are served with a melted foie-gras sauce; crab croquettes with an avocado mousse.

Salads have original touches: Endive and goat cheese are combined with a red-wine-poached pear in walnut vinaigrette; roasted beets are enhanced with goat-cheese fritters; plump asparagus is complemented by toasted capers and ricotta cheese.

Mr. Varua prepares a refined version of surf and turf: seafood mousseline and a duck breast glazed with a tangy chimichurri sauce.

Roasted chicken is moist and delicious, although the stuffing of sausage, corn bread and herbs is a tad powerful for the mild chicken. The presentation gives the chicken a beautiful sculptured appearance.

A filet of beef is accompanied by a tiny copper pot of spinach in cream and a large, hollow marrow bone filled with deliciously sweet potato puree. The puree plus pickled cherries accompany glazed pork belly. A veal chop is crusted with horseradish and served with a quail egg, potato dauphin and a soy bordelaise sauce.

Seafood choices include an excellent Chilean sea bass served with a stew of beans and artichokes; salmon with a mix of lentils and prosciutto; skate combined with lobster; and rock-shrimp-encrusted striped bass with spinach, chanterelles and a carrot-butter sauce.

The lunch menu includes many of the dinner appetizers. Main-course salads include seafood, chicken and calamari. Among lunch entrees are pan-roasted skate wing, salmon, scallops, steak, chicken breast and Chilean sea bass.

The bar menu offers several tempting small plates, such as delectable beef-tongue empanadas; mini fish tostadas; crisp calamari with a red-pepper aioli; tasty tiny burgers with Swiss cheese and bacon; and baby croque-monsieur sandwiches. Everything is prepared with care and a lively original touch.

A sampler of American caviar - sturgeon, paddlefish, osetra and whitefish - is served with traditional garnishes. It is available in the dining room and at the bar for $20.

Service is attentive and friendly. Will Murck, the new sommelier, knows his wines and helps, without pretense, in choosing the right bottle or glass.

701 Restaurant offers pre-theater menus every night from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. and post-theater menus from 10 p.m. until closing Friday and Saturday. The three-course menu costs $27.95.

RESTAURANT: 701 Restaurant, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202/393-0701

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday for dinner, until 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday for dinner

PRICES: Appetizers $7.50 to $13 (lunch), $9 to $20 (dinner); sandwiches and salads $10 to $20; entrees $15 to $24 (lunch), $17 to $34 (dinner); small plates $9 to $16

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Some street parking; dinner valet parking $7

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Archives-Navy Memorial

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