D.C.’s power dining king Ashok Bajaj will soon slide a modern French restaurant into the space that formerly housed The Oval Room, the glitzy, white tablecloth magnet for celebs and politicos he retired last fall after a 26-year run.
La Bise is targeting a Monday, June 14, opening at 800 Connecticut Avenue NW, reemerging from its longtime life as an American restaurant with extensive changes like a bigger bar and open-air kitchen. Despite opening around the same time D.C. lifts all COVID-19 capacity restrictions on June 11, the dining room will downsize its seat count to reflect post-pandemic preferences.
“People don’t want to sit that close to each other any time soon — the rule of thumb of 18 inches between tables is gone,” predicts Bajaj, founder of award-winning Knightsbridge Restaurant Group. A newly expanded outdoor patio will also cater to the new norm.
A menu makeover woos Francophiles with classics like French onion soup, steak tartare, a niçoise salad, and oysters from Tyler Stout, who’s relocating from Boston where he was executive chef at Troquet on South. His resume also includes local cooking stints at Barrel and Crow and Macon Bistro & Larder.
La Bise would have had an instant competitor in Mirabelle — Hakan Ilhan’s ornate French fixture located a few blocks away. Eater just learned the 4-year-old restaurant that went dark during the early days of the pandemic is rebranding into an Italian restaurant with a new name and TBA opening date, per a rep. Ilhan also does Italian at Al Dente in upper Northwest.
Despite pouring $1 million into an Oval Room renovation in 2014, Bajaj opted to completely gut the space and start from scratch. Due to its proximity to the White House, The Oval Room was vandalized during last summer’s protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Windows were broken and the carpet and tables sustained fire damage, he says.
“After the riots happened we needed to put fresh energy in there,” he says. “I’ve given it a lot of thought of what should I do — I said, why don’t I do something different here since it’s been closed for a year.”
Knightsbridge’s D.C. portfolio currently covers modern American (Annabelle); Italian (Modena); and Indian (Rasika). Bajaj, who’s in the business of catering to high-profile regulars with impeccable plating and service, gets out of his comfort zone this fall with a fast-casual Penn Quarter offshoot of Indian street food spot Bindaas selling bowls and rolls to go.
Bajaj hasn’t hesitated to switch things up at his restaurants in recent years. He rebranded Bibiana as Modena and turned NoPa Kitchen + Bar into Mediterranean-minded Olivia, complete with Picasso replicas, white sails, and banquettes lined with Hermes fabrics. That Penn Quarter restaurant folded last year amidst the pandemic, but he vows to reopen elsewhere “when the right location comes up.”
Half of La Bise’s wine list will be filled out by French labels, with the balance largely reserved for American and Spanish varietals. He plans to announce a sommelier soon.
Touchups to La Bise, which means “kiss,” include a reflective mirrored wall, banquettes covered in stripes, salmon-colored wallpaper, and custom murals of Paris. Some artwork from Bajaj’s own collection will also spruce up the space.
“I have all the ingredients in place — the staffing is the main challenge right now,” he says.