- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

You can’t go home again, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe famously said, but a lot of Washington insiders are thrilled to be home once more at the Jockey Club, restored in the hotel once more called the Fairfax.

Sometimes good things do happen. The restaurant is back after an absence of seven years in its old spot at Massachusetts Avenue and 21st Street Northwest with a new Glaswegian chef. Happily, because it wouldn’t be the Jockey Club without him, maitre d’hotel Martin Garbisu is back at the door, welcoming guests with Gallic charm, sophistication and discretion.

The Jockey Club first opened on the eve of President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. It was never famous for haute cuisine, but it was the place in the nation’s capital to be to be seen, where Washington´s power brokers could have quiet private conversations sealing deals and agreements with implications for everyone in the world. Movie stars rubbed elbows with Washington’s power elite, including Cabinet secretaries, senators, editors and television-network talking heads. The likes of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the late Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, appeared at the Jockey Club. Regulars insisted on their regular tables. But times and owners changed, and the restaurant closed in 2001.

The restored Jockey Club opened in December. It’s not exactly the same: The jockey weighing chair at the entrance is gone, but a new jockey is at the door. The wood paneling has been replaced with cloth, but the red-and-white tablecloths are back. Some table locations have changed, but there still are intimate tables for two along the wall and room dividers. Also, if you don’t like the distractions of the windows put in by a previous owner, you can pull down the shades for privacy. The service is, as before, impeccable; the wine list is extensive and excellent; and the cooking — a combination of past and present — now competes with Washington’s best.

Along with “Jockey Club Classics,” there are new appetizers and main courses. Executive chef Richard McCreadie, recently of the Georgetown Club, presides over the execution of dishes. Crusty French bread and a delicious amuse-bouche — a miniature blini with a tiny slice of lobster meat topped with a soupcon of caviar — made an auspicious start to an elegant meal.

Senegalese soup with a dash of lemon and a small mound of diced, curried chicken timbale is a pleasant, classic starter, as is a dish of three sea scallops, lightly caramelized and accompanied by turnip mash. The mash needed a dash of seasoning.

The restaurant’s classic appetizers include beef tartar, shrimp cocktail, the Jockey Club signature lump crab cake and a perfect Caesar salad. The dressing is prepared table-side with aplomb by Mr. Garbisu.

Potato gnocchi with wild mushrooms, tuna tartar and pan-seared foie gras are all new appetizers. A confit of duck with wild rice, roasted pepper shrimp and butternut-squash soup have been added to the list of luncheon appetizers.

The Dover sole, a longtime signature, is as delicious as ever. Sauteed in butter, it’s finished in a copper pan with a flourish and deboned at table side — a simple, splendid dish.

Duck breast is cooked to order and served with excellent wild rice and a puree of fennel, which, like the turnip mash, lacks authority.

Remembering the wonderful pommes souffles, or souffleed potatoes, at the old Jockey Cub, we asked whether the kitchen still prepares them even though they aren’t on the menu. Sure enough, out came a dish of crisp, airy puffs — not quite as light as the originals, but tasty and delicious.

While luncheon starters are similar to those for dinner, main courses vary — and former first lady Nancy Reagan’s chicken salad is back.

The Fairfax Lounge, just off the lobby, is back, too, almost exactly as it was, with comfortable chairs, sofas and a back room where there’s a performer on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It’s a perfect place to end a sophisticated evening and reflect on the possibility that maybe Thomas Wolfe exaggerated a bit.

RESTAURANT: Jockey Club, 2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202/835-2100

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. The restaurant also is open for breakfast daily from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.

PRICES: Starters $8 to $16 (lunch), $9 to $20 (dinner); entrees $14 to $24 (lunch), $23 to $36 (dinner); desserts $11 to $14

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Some street parking; complimentary valet parking for breakfast and lunch; dinner valet parking $10

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Dupont Circle.

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