Restaurant Review: 2941

Decadent but dressed down, 2941 waves good-bye to the white-glove fuss of its former self.

For most of the past decade, 2941 was revered as a special-occasion destination with all the trappings: white tablecloths, fine china, a $95 six-course tasting menu and polished service provided by a large, doting staff.

Diners celebrating birthdays and anniversaries happily overlooked its odd location in a Falls Church office park, given the ultimate reward: fine French cooking at the hands of chef Bertrand Chemel, who gathered his strengths in the Manhattan kitchens of celebrity chefs Daniel Boulud and Laurent Tourondel before taking the helm at 2941 in 2008.

Then came the belt-tightening economic downturn, bringing fewer flush customers who were willing to sit and surrender to a night-long feeding extravaganza.

At the end of 2011, the critically acclaimed restaurant announced plans to close for a major overhaul of its dining room, kitchen and menu. Shortly thereafter, from a new chrysalis of expression came the metamorphosis.

Elegant 2941 re-emerged as casual in concept, yet “special” and “destination” are still very much part of its genus. Inside, one finds flattering lighting and tables that are widely spaced for private conversation.

Chemel continues to demonstrate his mastery in combining flavors and textures, colors and accents, using the finest ingredients. And no amount of interior redo can take away from what was already there in the form of unexpectedly beautiful architecture and landscaping. First-time visitors are still in for a surprise.

“If I were dropped from space and found myself here, I’d think I was at a posh resort in Napa Valley,” said one pal as we made our way up a lush path and past a pond teeming with carp. In a surround of mature trees, flagstone terraces and cascading waterfalls, overlooking a sizable man-made lake, sits the reincarnated 2941 with its soaring two-story glass windows.

Chemel’s new menu is a tightly edited one-pager, made all the more precious by its brevity. I left each visit craving more of the chef’s praiseworthy American/French dishes, which transported me to the Côte d’Azur.

A pot of farmhouse butter and a generous basket of airy sourdough and sweet brown breads make a fine first impression. On one visit, I try a pleasant eggplant pâté with pimento from the menu’s “small bites” section. It’s luscious and lacks any hint of the botanical fruit’s inherent bitterness. But, man oh man, the portion is small—just two bites. (Think fancy bar food or amuse-bouche.)

The same can be said of the lovely, crisp calamari with avocado and house-made dipping sauce. The dish’s freshness and flavor are spot-on, but there is so little squid, it seems a shame to dirty another plate.

For me, the better appetizer choice is a huge serving of melt-in-your-mouth foie gras glazed with a sweet huckleberry jus, paired with blanched spinach and a “hat” of toasted brioche. (If you like goose liver, you won’t want to share.)

Chemel’s seasonal salads are an art form to behold. A winter favorite—whole endive leaves cradling puffs of blue cheese, candied pecans and sliced ripe pear—has since been swapped out for a tantalizing summer beet salad with goat cheese, arugula and tangy pools of strawberry marmalade.   

Servers are congenial and, when asked about ingredients or cooking methods, tend not to overbear or misstep. Still, one evening a near-scowling young woman hovered repeatedly, topping off water glasses with the expensive bottled stuff and never asking whether we’d requested tap. Not even my evil eye dissuaded her. That was an exception.

Both full and half-portions of the pastas are available with richness in mind (a little can go a long way). The Burrata ravioli turns out to be a beautiful and enjoyable plate of fresh cheese-stuffed pillows, complemented by a tomato coulis, basil oil and chunks of roasted artichoke. Like tarragon? You’re in luck if you order the luscious asparagus agnolotti, which is stuffed crescent-shaped pasta with a creamy, swoon-worthy sauce. Either dish offers a well-merited chance to cut the butter with a premium Burgundy from wine director Jonathan Schuyler’s cellar of more than 650 wines.

Sometimes the richness can get out of hand, though. Case in point is the Beef Duo entrée of exceptionally tender confit of short ribs and grilled strip loin of beef, which comes with nice cranberry beans. The whole business is smothered in an ultra-indulgent onion-flavored white sauce, which is scrumptious but should come with a gym membership.

Far less caloric and equally delectable is the French chef’s lightly browned sea bass with an aromatic saffron-and-mussel sauce, topped with mini-red mustard leaves. Or, if it’s halibut you prefer, Chemel roasts a thick slab to perfection and places it atop a lightly flavored tomato risotto with shaved asparagus salad. I’m also inclined to revisit the smoked chicken breast with its crisp skin and healthy-tasting herbal broth.

If you finish your main course and opt to call it a night, you’ll be missing some cute desserts created by pastry chef Caitlin Dysart. My favorite is the mingling of roasted pineapple, a flaky éclair piped with a rosemary cream, candied cashews and vanilla ice cream—a perfect sweet-and-sour tour de force. I’m also a fan of the plain-looking yet delicate and different dome of lemon-olive oil cake and fromage blanc with rhubarb sauce. And it’s tough to say no to the strawberry shortcake for grown-ups: three little biscuits amid ripe berries, lime curd, whipped cream and fresh basil.

At 2941, the butterfly is in flight. The view from every table is a knockout. My birthday may still be months away, but I know where I want to spend it. And hey, the restaurant still offers a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings if I really want to go all out. 

Walter Nicholls is a Washington native and former staff writer for The Washington Post.

Categories: Food & Drink
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