Culinary Institute of America grad Benjamin Lambert might have started his career at the circus—as a line cook at Manhattan’s Le Cirque—but 16 years later, he finds himself the executive chef in another dramatic setting—701 Restaurant on the grand parade route of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Between these two gigs, Lambert refined his talent at full-service city hotels and in a private club, for fine-dining rooms in the Virginia countryside and at America’s first certified organic restaurant. His menu here reflects that sophisticated resume, plus a childhood with grandparents who foraged and fished, gardened and canned.
The seasons dictate Lambert’s dishes, but a recent meal signals his anytime sleight of hand. Under menu headings “Share,” “Bounty & Grain,” “Fish,” “Meat” and “Pre-Theatre” ($36), diners find bone marrow with short rib and citrus, duck confit steam buns with cherry purée, poached lobster with red curry and butternut squash, lamb rack with yogurt and green harissa, a duo of beef with truffle jus, Maryland crab with Kuri squash, plus diver scallops with mushrooms and popcorn sauce.
Highlights: an entrée of Indian spice-accented cauliflower shawarma (think golden raisins, miso hummus and lavash) and an addictive cheese soup with ricotta, pumpkinseed oil and nasturtium ice cream. Desserts include house-made sorbets, chocolate mousse torte and crème brûlée with pumpkin ganache and gingerbread ice cream.
In late summer 2015, owner Ashok Bajaj closed his popular supper club just long enough for New York designer Martin Vahtra to transform its elegant stage set. Now private rooms and alcoves feature etched glass panels, a glowing bar and movable drapes, while the main room and lounge have turned into comfort zones of Italianate inspiration.
Consider the palette of burgundy and teal, pewter and gold that marks the fanciful carpeting, Maharam fabrics for banquettes and armchairs and, of course, the art works. Gallery goers may recognize surreal black and white portraits by the Gerlovins or dynamic abstractions by Kudryashov but not the focal point “Broken Egg” sculptures. Spanning one wall are rows of pearl-white resin spheres, each “punctured” to reveal a gleaming gold-leaf interior. (Their source: The Phillips Collection, a product design house, not Washington’s beloved museum.)
The bottom line: Liquid assets matter, from Moscow Mules and Manhattans (all cocktails $12) and La Colombe coffees to sparkling and food-smart wines. Weekday happy hours mean wines by the glass ($7.01 each, of course), and the cherished supper club ambience remains, thanks to mellow lighting and live music—jazz artists on piano and bass Thursday through Saturday nights. But fresh visions surface, too, on the plates sent out by Lambert and on that sculpture wall triggering echoes of an old saying, “a good omelet requires breaking a few eggs.”
701 Pennsylvania Ave NW, 202-393-0701, Metro: Archives-Navy Memorial