- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Occidental, one of Washington’s oldest restaurants, is celebrating its 100th birthday more or less all this year, as befits the place “Where Statesmen Dine.”

The Occidental opened next to the Willard Hotel in 1906, and it’s famous for the photographs of the men and women who moved and shook Washington over its first century. Novelist Robert Ruark once remarked that the only way he could keep up with who was who in the capital’s politics was by tracking how the photographs were arranged: “In” politicians were hung in the front room, the outs” in the back room.

The Occidental has been part of history. Gustav Bucholz, an earlier owner, entertained the crew of the German submarine Deutschland on the eve of World War I; a banquet for the Washington Senators to mark the only time they won the World Series was held at the Occidental in 1924; and the Occidental was the locale of one of two secret meetings between television correspondent John Scali and Soviet Embassy counselor Alexander S. Fomin that figured prominently in the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (The second meeting was at the Yenching Palace on Connecticut Avenue Northwest.)

Famous crimes too: The night porter was found blindfolded, gagged and bound to a bench in the employees’ locker room after a robbery that netted about $1,000 in liquor, cigars and cash in 1960.

The restaurant was demolished and rebuilt in its present location in 1986 with a plaza between it and the Willard InterContinental Hotel. Last year, the Occidental was closed for six months for renovations, including a new state-of-the-art kitchen.

Now it’s back, maybe better than ever. The photographs are in place, covering the walls with the faces of presidents, judges, writers, soldiers, politicians, journalists, athletes and artists. The gallery is a treat while you’re waiting for your table.

In the new kitchen, executive chef Rodney Scruggs, executive sous chef Troy Coan and pastry chef Casper Gibson make the Occidental once again the place where statesmen — and even mere politicians aspiring to be statesmen — can dine with pleasure.

Appetizers are substantial and excellent. Two of them could easily make a meal. For example, at a recent dinner, I chose a starter of spring risotto with English peas topped with two grilled shrimp, followed by roasted veal tenderloin, also an appetizer dish.

The risotto was perfect: creamy without being mushy, each grain of rice still discernible. The peas added a touch of crunch, and the shrimp were nicely grilled without becoming tough. A little shrimp oil suggested a bit of smokiness. A lovely combination.

The veal tenderloin is superb. Three small rounds of tender meat — cooked on the rare side exactly as requested — each about an inch thick, are served warm with a cool salad of mixed mushrooms, shaved celery root and tiny roasted onions. It’s a splendid dish, perfectly cooked.

A mound of tuna tartare mixed with diced cucumbers and sprinkled with sesame seeds in a subtle rice-wine dressing is fresh and delicious. The spoonful of sake sorbet accompanying the tuna is unnecessary but amusing.

A tart of roasted fennel and tomato, topped with filets of fresh sardines, a bit of shaved Bianco Sardo cheese and a zucchini basil sauce, makes a fine temptation.

A simple butter-lettuce salad is beautiful to behold (and consume). A bouquet of green leaves spread out on the plate is topped with crumbled sweet goat cheese and sliced black plums. Pistachios are ground, mixed into a citrusy vinaigrette and sprinkled on the leaves.

Steamed mussels, grilled quail, a cornmeal-crusted trout filet and lobster salad are other starters on the spring menu.

A grilled sirloin of Wagyu-style beef, a close cousin of Japan’s more expensive Kobe beef, is served sliced on a creamy, delicate puree of sunchokes and braised Swiss chard and a rich reduction of red wine and shallots. The excellent beef is tender and flavorful.

Fish items include yellowfin tuna with a white eggplant coulis; West Coast halibut; sea scallops with a mushroom-cabbage dumpling; and fennel-crusted Atlantic salmon served with a ragout of crabmeat and artichokes.

Crab cakes are excellent, as they must be in this region. Two large cakes of first-quality crab, lightly sauteed, are served on a refreshing salad of frisee lettuce, chopped asparagus and small tomatoes. The cakes couldn’t be better.

The bread accompanying dinner disappoints. A basket of rolls tasted warmed over, flavorless and doughy. Chef Scruggs’ excellent cuisine deserves much better.

An unusual dessert is a spring sampler of a small raspberry tart, a little dish of pudding topped with a dice of strawberries, and a square of spice cake under a rich chocolate sauce. It’s an easy dish to share and makes a not-too-sweet finish to a delicious meal.

The lunch menu includes a selection of sandwiches and several interesting appetizers, such as savoy cabbage, porcini mushrooms and glazed apples. A number of entree salads are available as well as substantial lunch entrees of fish, duck, beef and a pasta.

Wines are well chosen, albeit a bit dear, with several excellent California vintages. Service is well informed and professional. But after six months of renovation, it’s a pity that the air conditioning doesn’t work properly. Maybe it will by summer, and it’s great to see an old friend, just across from Pershing Square, back with the right stuff.

RESTAURANT: Occidental, 1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202/783-1475

OURS: Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.

PRICES: Appetizers $9 to $13 (lunch), $9 to $15 (dinner); entrees $12 to $25 (lunch), $28 to $37 (dinner); desserts and sides $9CREDIT CRDS: All maor cards

PARKIN: Some street parking; complimentary valet parking for lunch and dinner at the Willard InterContinental Hotel

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Metro Center, Federal Triangle

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