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The Occidental is an Icon of Washington Dining

Jordan Wright
By Jordan Wright
Posted on Feb 11,2009
Filed Under Restaurants , Local Tastes,

Mr. President, your table awaits you… Madame Secretary, welcome back…

This hallowed dining place, catty-corner to the appropriately named, Freedom Plaza, and adjacent to the historic Willard Hotel, has hosted presidents and their cabinet members since its’ opening in 1906 and is just a short stroll from the White House.

One cannot describe this revered watering hole without first mentioning the unique décor. Hundreds of elegantly framed photographs of Senators, Presidents, dignitaries, governors, athletes, Members of Congress and celebrity patrons, from JFK and Buffalo Bill Cody to Jackie Robinson and General Colin Powell, cover the two-story high walls of this space.

Stunning coffered-wood paneling lines the entry, which features the (to be officially unveiled next week) new Obama presidential portrait, and gives the feel of an elite private club. A sweeping, “see-and-be-seen” bar, extending across the back wall, affirms the restaurant’s Washington power scene reputation.

When current Chef Rodney Scruggs came to the Occidental he was a lad of 17 learning the ropes from the lowest rung of the culinary ladder. For seven years he worked under the tutelage of famed chef Jeffrey Buben, eventually leaving to work in the kitchens of Francesco Ricchi and later Roberto Donna.

Now he has returned to the fold as Executive Chef to distinguish himself with his original and eclectic menu evolved from his lessons under some of the area’s top chefs.

On a recent evening I sampled a few of his outstanding dishes and pried from him one of my favorites.

I began with the White Sweet Potato Soup that, moat-like, surrounded a sweet, citrus fruit compote, mounded with a nutmeg and cinnamon-scented whipped cream. A slightly poached Lobster with Chai Tea Flan, so delicate and alluring in a star anise butter sauce, followed.
Wild Game Terrine, the forcemeat studded with quail, squab, duck, pheasant and hen was served with toasted brioche and currant jelly and had echoes of a classic Victorian dish.

A deconstructed Chef Salad with a gently poached egg resting on top refreshed the palate with the usual anchovies and the unusual addition of sun-dried tomatoes. Sweet potatoes reappeared, pureed this time and served alongside a meltingly tender Venison with Cabernet Sauce.

For dessert Chef Rodney’s Chocolate Trilogy, offering three types of chocolate mousse including white, milk and dark perched atop chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and whipped cream would satisfy the chocoholic in any of us.

When good cheeses are on deck I will probably indulge…but when they are brilliantly paired with fortified wines…well, I advise you not to deny yourself the most divine after dinner experience, a choice which Americans too frequently ignore in favor of a cloyingly sweet nightcap and coffee.

But an exquisite denouement to this dinner awaited in the form of a well-chosen selection of cheeses and dessert wines. Some, like the marvelous Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia, or the lovely Oregonzola from Rogue Creamery, I have enjoyed before. But a triple cream brie-like cow’s milk cheese that came from local Maryland cheese maker, Chapelle’s Country Creamery, was an irresistible surprise.

Aged in French oak, a Private Reserve Beringer Napa Valley Nightingale 2008, tasting of peaches and butterscotch, proved its worth. But I made a lifelong love connection with a Reserve Saint Dominique Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Eric Bonnet - 2006 that belongs in one’s permanent lexicon.

Celebrating its hundred and third year, this icon of Washington dining fulfills its promise of the place “where statesmen (and women) still dine”.

If You Go...
The Occidental Restaurant
1475 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004
For reservations, call (202) 783-1475

White Sweet Potato Soup from Chef Rodney Scruggs
Serves 8 people
2 white sweet potatoes
1/2 spanish onion
8 cup vegetable stock
3/4 cup. honey
4 cups heavy cream
1 tsp. cinnamon
salt to taste

Roast whole sweet potatoes in oven at 350 degrees until soft to touch. Peel and reserve.

In 3 qt. sauce pot slowly saute onions until translucent.  Add sweet potatoes, vegetable stock, honey and cinnamon. Simmer for 45 minutes on medium heat. Transfer to a blender or use an immersion blender and blend until very smooth and creamy.  Place mixture back into sauce pot and add cream and salt.  Simmer on low to medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes more.  

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