In his latest fine-dining comeback, Frank Ruta still defers to first ladies.
Diners who flock to Annabelle, the fine-dining restaurant that opens tomorrow night in a historic building on the outskirts of Dupont, will come to try Ruta’s cooking because of the name the James Beard award winner made at Palena, the Grill Room, and Mirabelle. But in Ruta’s eyes, the most formative time in his career was the decade he spent cooking at the White House. His mind wanders back there often while coming up with a menu for his new boss, power dining bigwig Ashok Bajaj.
Annabelle (2132 Florida Avenue NW) serves a consommé Célestine in part because Nancy Reagan loved to start her meals with clarified broth. Ruta says when he began his kitchen appointment, under Jimmy Carter, the other chefs forced him to spend three years learning to strain consommé before he was allowed to make it. He credits former White House colleagues Henry Haller and Hans Raffert, hailing from Switzerland and Germany, respectively, with much of what he still likes to cook.
“Those guys were walking encyclopedias of classical cooking,” Ruta says.
Even if he was making a sandwich or packing a school lunch, Ruta had to make it feel presidential. He says he wants to take the same approach at Annabelle, a contemporary American venue selling a handful of dishes that go back to Escoffier and grand European hotels of the early 20th century.
Ruta’s consommé at Annabelle starts with a rich poultry stock of duck, pheasant, and Amish chickens, then gets fortified with roasted bones and dry-aged beef. Crepes, truffles, and tapioca pearls all make the starter more substantial. A Monte Cristo salad, made with a wedge of Boston lettuce, Peekytoe crab from Maine, rose-colored Adirondack Potatoes, artichokes, lardons, and a Thousand Island dressing is another throwback. So is the Lobster Americaine, although this one is billed alongside harissa-flavored potato puree.
In addition to the Continental items, Ruta’s kitchen is offering small seafood plates like a prawn cocktail or a snack of salmon cured with cardamom and coffee. Another part of the menu highlights fresh pastas that nod to Ruta’s Italian roots (by way of Pittsburgh). Other sections focus on meats cured in an aging cellar that was converted from an old walk-in and entrees like half of a roasted chicken, in thyme jus, or cod poached in smoked olive oil and served in a red Manhattan chowder.
Pastry chef Aja Cage, formerly of Ris and Salt Tavern in Baltimore, is making goat cheese cheesecake with spicy urfa pepper honey and pavlovas with pineapple compote, ginger crémeux, and passionfruit sorbet.
Annabelle is the 10th restaurant that Bajaj will open in a D.C. career that just crossed the 30-year mark. Over that time, he’s developed a reputation for wooing politicians and critics at places like Rasika, Bombay Club, and the Oval Room.
Bajaj spent $4 million to buy the building that was a grocery and a deli before it housed organic dining pioneer Nora Pouillon’s Restaurant Nora for 40 years. Bajaj ran into delays confronting the amount of work that needed to be done while gutting the place, including replacing the electrical and plumbing systems.
Located on the southern edge of Kalorama, Annabelle shares an elite neighborhood with houses owned by the Obamas, Jeff Bezos, and Jared and Ivanka Trump. Three separate rooms, including a skylight topped Garden Room that has live plants cascading from the ceiling, are equipped for private parties.
The high-end sensibilities are reflected in the main dining room — one of the first items on the menu is $110, 30-gram portion of Ossetra caviar — but Ruta has come up with a bar menu more suitable for neighbors that want to pop in for a casual bite.
A separate name for tiny Bar Barlow is a tribute to Joel Barlow, a Revolutionary-era diplomat and poet who coined the neighborhood’s name when he decided to call his estate Kalorama, or “grand view” in Greek. At Palena, the Cleveland Park restaurant that Ruta owned for 14 years, he created a white tablecloth burger that became a signature item. a A $14 Barlow Burger is Ruta’s homage to a Reuben. He tops an aged beef patty with pastrami, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island the kitchen makes itself.
Bajaj says he’d been trying to convince Ruta to work with him for years. Ruta most recently opened Mirabelle to rave reviews in 2017, but was fired after a year, with owner Hakan Ilhan pointing to cost overruns. Ilhan served Ruta with a noncompete lawsuit in September in an attempt to block the chef from working for Bajaj, and Ruta has since answered.
Ruta wasn’t promised the Annabelle job when he joined Bajaj’s company. He started working at Bibiana in April, preparing it for a rebrand into Modena, and would suggest names to Bajaj for the chef vacancy.
Finally, Bajaj told Ruta the job was his if he wanted it. For such a landmark project in such a landmark location, Bajaj had to have just the right person for the job.
“For me it was very, very personal and special,” Bajaj says.
- Rasika Owner Shells Out $4 Million for Restaurant Nora Building
- Former Palena, Mirabelle Chef Frank Ruta Returns to the D.C. Dining Scene [EDC]
- Mirabelle Sues Former Star Chef to Block Him From Cooking For a Rival Group [EDC]
- Star Chefs Leave Year-Old French Restaurant Mirabelle [EDC]
- The D.C. Restaurant World Reminisces About Palena [EDC]