- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

This is what Signatures does not do: It does not push bottled brands to the exclusion of ordinary tap water; it does not have pushy waiters reminding diners of salad choices or repeating a long list of daily specials made incomprehensible with too many esoteric ingredients; it does not have loud music drowning out conversation.
So many "nots" make this 4-month-old restaurant a must for patrons seeking civilized encounters of a very special kind, because what Signatures does do is quite impressive, especially in the area of service.
These days, when nearly every high-end restaurant competes as a theatrical as well as culinary experience, the pretensions here are of a most benign kind. Decor is simple and elegant, with the addition of framed documents and artifacts featuring the celebrities' signatures many, if not most, from the political sphere. Hence, the name and linkage to a location eight blocks from the Capitol, within shouting distance of the National Archives. But management thankfully has resisted passing out a price list along with the menu.
General manager Joseph Hurst actually apologized one recent afternoon when he realized the television set over the bar showing tennis at Wimbledon was on too loud.
Signatures says it will supply patrons with after-dinner transportation to nearly any theater of their choice if the service is requested ahead of time. Another plus is the number of discreet waiters and no suggestion that a patron is lingering too long over a meal.
The place is a very shrewd package, offering under one roof a full-service menu and no slack time beginning weekdays at 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. for a breakfast that is light and hearty. The knock-out suggestion calculated to impress any guest by your side is the steak and egg combination. The beef is Kobe strip steak, reputedly the beer-fed, hand-massaged Japanese-style meat, served with some of the most delicious fries (although a trifle salty) along the avenue.
The Kobe name is a showpiece item, just made to impress. At lunch, the listing is Kobe beef steak that comes with a sweet onion, melted provolone and Swiss cheese on a toasted baguette and more of those potatoes. A succulent mouthful, to be sure, at $18. The dinner version is a strip steak with chanterelle mushrooms for, gasp, $74.
We resisted, opting instead for Signature's other signature dish created by chef Michael Rosen: North Carolina shrimp and grits. Not plain breakfast grits at all but buttery truffle and goat-cheese-flavored grits with garlic-sauteed shrimp under a light red-pepper coulis.
The filet mignon at $31 is another handsomely presented plate containing a potato latke and fresh asparagus assembled sandwich-style. One evening recently, the single special was a circular show of pan-roasted scallops with mango salsa and spinach in a cream sauce. Pan-fried Chilean sea bass with ratatouille is another popular choice that management intends to keep on the menu despite reports that it is being fished out of existence.
The fish dish that won us over was a first-course "fried" raw tuna sushi creation served with spicy chipotle sauce and ginger. It was arranged on the plate like a benign snake, beautiful to behold. A jumbo lump crab cake atop roasted corn relish, was a far less tasty comparison.
Desserts run the gamut. Expect changes on the printed menu. The special was a thick rum-vanilla mousse with dark-chocolate shavings in a martini glass accompanied by three perfect chocolate truffles. Expect tiramisu, creme brulee and cheesecake as well as an iced rhubarb soup.
Snapper cooked in parchment will disappear from the menu soon, as will the lavender-infused domestic rack of lamb and items with buttery cream sauces considered too heavy for summer. Signatures is ready for all seasonal variations in taste, both in gustatory and climatic terms; an L-shaped bar offers sushi service and a separate menu.
The collection of celebrity signatures and artifacts for sale on the walls, are priced from $2,900 (Greta Garbo's autograph). President Kennedy's rocking chair encased in glass (a $450,000-plus item) forms a sort of partition between two sections of the bar. Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who lives nearby, sat alone pensively nursing a glass of white wine in the upper section at about 3 p.m. recently, enjoying the midday lull.
The bar is crowded in the early evening and has a separate menu available from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. or midnight on weekends if the crowd stays late. Saturday evenings a jazz combo performs.
Lunch and dinner patio tables are available on the spacious Navy Memorial plaza outside one of the restaurant's two entrances. With leather chairs, pastel walls and wood paneling throughout, this could be a gentleman's club or a voyeur's delight. Plans are afoot for some theatrical hoopla, such as the sale of vintner-signed magnum bottles of wine.
Asked what was meant by the word "misunderstood" above a few of the red and white listings, our waiter tried to explain before getting wine director Pam Seaton, who said it was her way of drawing attention to some worthy labels with which many Americans are not familiar. She pointed out several and offered a taste of one of them alongside the Riesling, pinot gris and syrah we had ordered. Viognier had just climbed out of the list into a separate category on the page of whites graduation day although none yet is from a Washington area vineyard.
Note that the restaurant is open today, July Fourth, only between noon and 6 p.m., serving primarily a bar menu in expectation that the patio will be popular with visitors if the weather is kind. "We want to give our employees time off to enjoy the festivities," says Mr. Hurst, who also reports that staying open for Sunday dinner is under consideration because few other restaurants in the neighborhood do.


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