The Garden Room features skylights, white exposed brick, finely hewn wood beams and a forest of flora, making the space feel bright and expertly curated.
A shok Bajaj might not admit it, but he has the soul of a gambler. Last year, he paid $4 million for the Kalorama neighborhood property that once housed the groundbreaking Restaurant Nora. He reportedly invested another $3 million to renovate the space. The restaurant’s neighbors are the Obamas, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and Jeff Bezos. High stakes, indeed. The rest was easy: He hired his requisite outstanding staff and—oh, yes—tapped one of the finest chefs the city has ever known, Frank Ruta, to lead the kitchen. Rolling the proverbial dice, the legendary restaurateur banked on gourmands feeling giddy about the whole affair. He would call the new place Annabelle.
Bajaj needn’t have worried about his bet. It was a sure thing all along. Ruta, the former White House chef who’s also thrilled guests at Palena and Mirabelle, is better than ever. A meal in this comfortably chic space is guaranteed to be among the finest a guest will have anywhere in DC this year.
One of the warm and sleek dining rooms in Annabelle
As patrons enter Annabelle, they encounter the 15-seat Bar Barlow, named after Revolutionary-era diplomat and poet Joel Barlow, who dubbed the neighborhood Kalorama, meaning “grand view” in Greek. Designwise, the main dining room offers a soothing combination of textures (exposed white brick and warm wood) and hues (blues and fuchsias). The cozy Garden Room features skylights and a forest of flora framing the space several feet below the ceiling. Each room—three of which can be reserved for private events—feels more like a well-appointed home in the neighborhood, as if one were about to embark on a festive dinner party for 150 close friends.
Standouts among the appetizers include West Coast oysters and Yukon Gold potato gnocchi, a creamy creation of the nuggets with hazelnuts and balsamic-compressed pear. Ruta’s famous consommé, which Nancy Reagan adored when Ruta was in her employ on Pennsylvania Avenue, is another star. The first lady worshipped the dish so much she shared it with Frank Sinatra, and for good reason: It’s substantive, as Ruta adds tapioca pearls, truffles and crepes to a poultry stock of Amish chicken, pheasant and duck.
From top: Smoked olive oil-poached Chatham cod with Manhattan chowder, braised celery and razor clam foam; Pavlova with roasted pineapple compote, ginger crémeux and passion fruit sorbet; Maine lobster Americaine, with bisque-style sauce, duchess potatoes, cardamom butter-glazed parsnips and mushrooms.
Sure, Ruta can play the old hits, but he also shows he’s capable of producing more gold. After all, the man has even reimagined the ubiquitous beet salad at Annabelle. The crimson morsels are cubed and accompanied by avocado mousse, using a base lightened by whipped cream held together by gelatin. The chef mixes ripe avocados with lime juice with a trace of minced scallions and Thai peppers—the creamy creation (Ruta leaves some avocado chunks) sits atop mini mounds of tender butternut squash. Roasted chicken can be fairly pedestrian in some kitchens—not here. Ruta revives the hearty dish from his days at the beloved Palena. The young Amish bird is marinated for 36 to 48 hours and then air-dried before roasting, resulting in a crackly skin shielding moist meat amid tarragon jus, oca root boulangère and flavorful bands of wilted arrowhead spinach. Ruta’s salmon, sourced from New Zealand, is another example of a chef working at peak performance. The fish is adorned with a pepper tuile crafted from gochugaru oil, Korean red pepper flakes and grapeseed oil. He cooks the concoction on a hot griddle while adding sesame seeds. Quick cooking produces the lacy topping, which, when crumbled into the flaky meat and commingled with kimchi broth, melds tastes both sweet and sharp.
Mark Thompson runs an impressive wine program, which features lots of small vineyards like California’s Peay and Ridge of Cloverdale and Cupertino, respectively. Pastry chef Aja Cage, formerly of Ris, also keeps pace with the mastery going on under this roof. Her Pavlova, with roasted pineapple compote, ginger crémeux and passion fruit sorbet, reminds us why culinary talent, at least under Bajaj, rises to the top.
Photography by: Greg Powers