Washington may soon be home to a new Mexican eatery. Victor Albisu, the chef behind the Latin American grill Del Campo and the casual Taco Bamba taqueria, plans to bring a Mexican restaurant specializing in street fare to Ballston. Bombazo (the word means an explosion or big hit) will combine a sit-down cantina and a second Taco Bamba for quick-grab tacos within the space.
Albisu is one of eight semifinalists in the Ballston Restaurant Challenge, and the Bombazo concept is what he entered into the competition for a chance to win a lease and one year’s free rent at 1110 North Glebe Road. A cookoff at the Taste of Arlington on May 18 will help determine which of the eight semifinalists advance; a battle between the top two crowd favorites will determine the final winner on June 4. Even if he doesn’t win the grand prize, Albisu says he plans to pursue the restaurant in the neighborhood.
“I grew up around different cultures of Latin food, and my mission now is to further the ideas of a Latin cuisine,” he says.
Similar to Taco Bamba, he envisions a mixture of traditional dishes and his own riffs on Mexican street fare. You might find a ceviche bar, tamales, tortas, grilled platters, and more, in addition to a lineup of tacos served in the restaurant and for takeout from the taqueria (one welcome difference here: beer and margaritas). Stay tuned for more details as the concept and competition develop.
If Washington has a quintessential chef/host, it’s Mike Isabella. He’s known to throw some of the city’s hottest parties for industry insiders and guests alike, whether at Graffiato’s monthly Industry Takeover, impromptu after-parties following culinary events, or more formal gatherings such as Wednesday’s James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour at Kapnos.
We caught up with Isabella as he prepared for the five-course feast alongside guest chefs he personally tapped for the event—an impressive roster including locals Scott Drewno, Victor Albisu, and Haidar Karoum, as well as Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov and Kevin Spraga, current James Beard Best Chef Northeast nominee Jamie Bissonnette, and Chris Ford, a former local pastry chef transplanted to Bouchon Bakery in Los Angeles. In his element, Isabella joked with the team as they prepared octopus with bone marrow and duck foie gras kabobs, made the rounds once guests started to pour in, and invited the entire 100-plus party to Kapnos’s bar after the three-hour meal for more drinks.
Here, Isabella talks his favorite place to drink margaritas with visiting celebrity chefs, dinner party go-tos (they involve cheese and truffles), and the three guests he’d most like to have over for dinner.
You’re one of DC’s biggest chef/hosts. How did you come into that role?
The one thing is that it’s not about me. It’s about building up this great culinary scene in Washington, and also getting people who might not travel to Boston or Philly to try the other chefs’ food. Local chefs get to meet the out-of-town chefs, and it just opens up more doors for all of us. I just really enjoy it.
What are some of your favorite spots to take visiting chefs?
Daikaya’s great, Toki’s great. I take them to a lot of the main chefs’ restaurants around the city. Obviously everyone wants to stop by a José Andrés restaurant, like Jaleo. Del Campo is one of my favorites. I like to mix it up between people who have longevity, who’ve been in the city a long time, and people who are doing something a little different.
What about favorite bars?
Derek [Brown] has three great bars right here [Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill, and Southern Efficiency]. If it’s late-night we go to All Souls. When Angelo [ Sosa] came out last summer I took him to Cantina Marina. I love it; it’s one of my favorite places to go. You’re outside on the water, nothing special; you just get a Corona and a margarita and hang out on the Potomac.
What is it like opening your kitchen to other chefs?
I enjoy it; I’ve never been one of those guys that’s like, “I’m not telling you what goes on in my world.” I like to open the doors. It’s cooking—we all cook; I want to have fun and have these guys feel like they’re at home.
Do you have any rituals for when chefs come into town?
We usually drink bourbon! I love a Michter’s Rye. We’ll see where we end up today. If Le Diplomate was open, I’d bring them to get a nice big [shellfish] plateau and just chill out because it’s a nice day.
Do you and your fellow DC chefs ever get together and cook in your spare time?
We usually do for playoff games, like the Super Bowl, which is probably the biggest. Scott [ Drewno] likes to make bratwurst, we’ll do wings and a few kinds of chili, salsas, and guacamole. When we have people over, we like to do truffled grilled cheese. It’s a mix of truffled cheese, pecorino tartufo, and a little mozzarella, and then I shave a bunch of black truffles in it and on top. A lot of us like the classic, simple food we grew up with, but being chefs we have the ability to get our hands on some really good products.
What are your go-to dishes and drinks for when guests come over in warm weather?
In summertime, my wife likes to make white sangria with peaches and basil. On the Fourth of July we’ll do a green chili and red chili, or go to Red Apron and get different types of hot dogs and sausages.
What’s the best host gift you’ve ever received?
Expensive Champagne. I don’t get too many gifts!
Do you have any dos or don’ts when it comes to hosting?
I always try to say less is more. You get all these ideas, whether you’re cooking with a bunch of chefs or cooking at home for people. I try to make everything very simple, with a very few items.
Where’s your favorite place to be a guest?
I love going out to eat. Obviously from the service side the best is Marcel’s, where we go once or twice a year. They treat us like a king and queen over there. Their service is amazing.
Who taught you how to be a good host?
My wife always enjoys having people over, and cooks everything from hors d’oeuvres to desserts. We’ve been doing that for years; it’s how you get friends together. She definitely does most of the cooking. I’ll help out a little bit here and there, but the menu planning and most of the cooking comes from her.
If you could have three people over for dinner, living or dead, who would it be and what would you cook?
I’d want to have a fun dinner. I’d probably invite Daniel Tosh, Rob Dyrdek from MTV, and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) president Dana White. I’d definitely make some classic pasta, and you have to do steak when you have a guy like Dana White over. Maybe we’d start out with caviar, go into a pasta course, a meat, and of course the wife’s rum baba. She makes an infamous rum baba.
If you think finding a seat at Toki Underground or Rose’s Luxury is tough, you can bet a collaborative dinner between the restaurants’ chef/owners will be a sought-after reservation. Toki toque Erik Bruner-Yang and Rose’s Aaron Silverman are joining forces for a meal on April 16. The dinner is hosted in memory of chef Thang Le, who passed away in 2012, and will partially benefit the nonprofit Mission Excellence, an after-school program for inner-city youths.
The meal will be held at Toki Underground, where Le last cooked. The chefs have designed eight courses (see the menu below), with an optional beverage pairing. Reservations are $100 each, and can be made by e-mailing email@example.com. Better book soon.
The Second Annual Bel’le Dinner
nam prik oysters
nam khao crudo
congee | quinoa | pig’s tongue
homemade sourdough and fresh cheese
pork | prawn
roasted grapes | bamboo shoots
seven treasure sticky rice
oolong panna cotta
The Mexican-themed Agua 301 just opened on the Capitol Riverfront in December, but a new chef has already taken over. As first noted on DonRockwell.com, opening toque Antonio Burrell has left the kitchen. A spokesperson for the restaurant tells us a replacement has already been found: Will Vivas, formerly the executive chef at Recess Tapas Lounge. Vivas took the helm last Tuesday.
Before coming to Washington, the Venezuelan-born chef ran Vivas restaurant in Belmar, New Jersey. He’ll keep much of Agua’s menu the same—those pork-belly tacos aren’t going anywhere—but diners will also find a number of changes, including more South American dishes inspired by Vivas’s cooking background.
James Beard Award-winning chef RJ Cooper has a reputation for pushing boundaries: At his Rogue 24 in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, diners choose between 16- and 24-course tasting menus. Next up: Gypsy Soul, a casual ode to regional dining in Merrifield with a sprawling rooftop grill. We caught up over raw carrots—Cooper is currently dieting—and talked about tattoos, bourbon, and his pet corgi.
Energy source: “It used to be Red Bull with chocolate. Now it’s coffee.”
Bourbon: “Black Maple Hill from Kentucky. It’s not Pappy Van Winkle, so it’s affordable, and it’s just as good.”
Restaurant: “My favorite super-fine dining is the Inn at Little Washington. It’s a very magical, Disney World place. Also magical: Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit.”
Takeout: “I have a soft spot for really bad Chinese food—greasy, starchy almond chicken from any place I can find on my phone.”
Currently craving . . . “I’m on a diet. I haven’t had chocolate in seven weeks. The kitchen crew used to eat a two-pound bag of almond M&M’s every day.”
Ice-cream flavor: “Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby, man—c’mon.”
Day trip: “A motorcycle trip through the George Washington National Forest.”
Tattoo: “I have so many! My Rogue tattoo means a lot to me because I got it three days before my open-heart surgery.”
Always in the home fridge: “Soy milk, so many berries, and a bunch of protein drinks.”
Pet: “Rebecca the Corgi Princess of McLean. She’s 11.”
Breakfast dish: “I haven’t eaten it since I started my diet, but I really like the quiche at Baked & Wired in Georgetown.”
Healthy snack: “A protein shake and raw carrots.”
Fast food: “Wendy’s triple burger with lettuce, tomato, onions, bacon, and fried onion rings on top, all crushed down.”
Four people I’d like to invite to dinner: “Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson, Jerry Garcia, and Jerry Seinfeld. I’d serve pot brownies. “
Condiment: “If I’m at Daikaya, I like togarashi spice on everything. If it’s a burger, Thousand Island dressing. For French fries, mayonnaise.”
Restaurant music: “When we’re working, it’s whoever gets to the radio first. I’m a big jam-band guy and will put on the Dead, and everyone else is like, ‘Arrrrrrgh.’ ”
Restaurant I’d like to open: “The first chef-driven biker bar. It would have rock ’n’ roll, stripper poles, Miller High Life, and lots of smoked meats.”
Artists: “Warhol. I love the depth and energy, the wackiness. I love Dalí, and I really want to know what drugs he was on.”
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Once upon a time, the late, lauded chef Jean-Louis Palladin, maestro of the landmark Jean-Louis at the Watergate, said that if Francis Layrle cooked in a restaurant he’d be “number one” in Washington. Layrle’s longtime close friend, Daniel Boulud, also holds his culinary skills in high regard. But Layrle wasn’t free to manage a restaurant kitchen. He already had a day job, and a night job, as chef de cuisine at the French Embassy. His talents were shared only with an elite group—the succession of eight ambassadors he served over 35 years, their wives, and their influential guests.
Fortunately for Washington, the story is different today. Layrle left the embassy in 2006, and cooked here and there. Now you can find him six days a week in La Piquette, a cozy bistro on Macomb Street in the heart of Cleveland Park. His ways with the casual classics on his large chalkboard menu pack in guests on a regular basis. This week he’ll introduce lunch Wednesday through Friday, as well as weekend brunch.
Layrle couldn’t be happier. “I love the neighborhood,” he says. “I know it very well. It is a real neighborhood. It’s a great feeling to see customers talking to each other, table to table. The people here appreciate food.” He warmly recalls an encounter that happened just the other day. “I was opening the restaurant, and a woman drove by, stopped, and said, ‘Thank you for being here.’ I love it.”
Layrle came to Washington in 1973, fresh out of serving his required stint in the French military. Before that he had attended cooking school and worked in kitchens near his native Gascony. A general hand-picked him to cook during his military service, and later told him about the embassy job. Layrle went to Paris, auditioned, and three weeks later began working in the elegant French residence on Kalorama Road.
When he moved to Washington, Layrle met and became close friends with Boulud, who had also just arrived from France. Boulud, now an internationally acclaimed chef, prepared meals for the DC-based French ambassador of the European Commission.“We helped each other out,” says Layrle. They cooked together during their time off, building a bond that remains strong. Layrle still talks often with Boulud, who is slated to open his first Washington restaurant, at CityCenterDC, in June, according to Layrle. “He’s hoping not to have the welcome here that Michel Richard had in New York,” Layrle says. But he’s certain that won’t happen. He also predicts that he and Boulud will do “something together” in the bustling open kitchen at Piquette.
For now, he’s focused on his menu of bistro dishes, which he describes as comfort food in touch with the seasons. Winter stars include cassoulet, duck confit, and Gascony’s signature garbure, a soup of duck confit, cabbage, beans, and prosciutto. He sources pork sausage from a man in West Virginia whose son provided herbs for him at the French Embassy. For spring and summer Layrle is planning lighter fare: chicken with crawfish deglazed in Armagnac, calamari, soft-shell crabs, and crabcakes. “We make ours with lobster mousse inside, and they are crispy on the outside,” he says.
La Piquette is owned by Bruno Fortin and Cyrille Brenac, who also own Bistrot Lepic and Wine Bar, just above Georgetown. Layrle says the trio have known one another for years, including during his post-embassy forays into catering and his more than two years as chef with Potomac’s Bezu, now closed. He advised Fortin and Brenac on La Piquette, and they hired him to run the kitchen when the eatery opened in November. Still, don’t call Layrle “chef.” He doesn’t like the term.
“I never wanted to be a chef,” he says. “I like to cook. I don’t like the term chef. It’s rude. I have a name—Francis.” He laughed when asked about whether to use his last name. “It’s too hard to pronounce.” Together we tried to figure out the phonetic spelling—(La-eer-lyl)—and then he repeated, “Just call me Francis.”
Tapas to go? During an interview at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, José Andrés told Vanity Fair he’ll be involved with fast-food restaurants very soon.
“I’ve been saying for a while that more and more chefs, we need to be [better at] influencing how to feed the many,” says Andrés. “We only feed the few. I don’t mean only on hunger issues, which I love to see the food community very involved in, solving the hunger and obesity issues in America and overseas, but I believe there’s an opportunity for chefs to have more of a say in how we’re going to feed the vast majority of this planet. You achieve that through the fast-food restaurants.”
Andrés goes on to tell the interviewer how chefs such as Bobby Flay and Steve Ells (founder of Chipotle) have been able to run successful fast-food concepts coming from a cooking background, as opposed to a strictly corporate approach.
“So I’m going to tell you, José wants to contribute to that, creating a fast-food restaurant. Which one? I cannot tell you yet. But will you see me doing fast-food restaurants in the next year, year and a half? Yes.”
Andrés has long been involved in charities like DC Central Kitchen that provide meals to many, and has floated ideas about fast food in the past, including healthier options at sports stadiums. Andrés has already dipped his toes in the quick-grab waters with his food truck, Pepe, which will start serving Spanish flauta sandwiches and soups again soon after a winter hiatus. He also recently launched a José Andrés product line with items such as potato chips that could come in very handy in a fast-food setting. Can we expect drive-through gazpacho and the McHamburguesa in 2016? We’ll keep you posted.
Zentan chef Jennifer Nguyen will compete in the first episode of the new Food Network series Beat Bobby Flay, which airs March 3.
The premise of the show is a mix of the ingredient-based challenges on Iron Chef and Throwdown With Bobby Flay, in which he engages in a cookoff with chefs known for a signature dish such as a po’ boy or chili. The first round of the culinary competition features two toques who compete to create a dish using a secret ingredient of Flay’s choice. A special guest like Giada De Laurentiis or Scott Conant picks the best candidate to try to out-cook Flay in the final challenge. The visiting chef cooks his or her signature dish, which is only revealed to the celeb toque at the beginning of the round. If he fails to concoct a tastier version, the visitor can claim they “beat Bobby Flay”—though they still have to pack their knives and go.
The sneak peek episode pits Nguyen against chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche in Louisville, Kentucky. Celebrity judges include the star chef’s chef Jonathan Waxman and the Food Network’s Sunny Anderson. Tune in at 10 to cheer for the local toque.
In case you were otherwise occupied over Valentine’s/Presidents’ Day Weekend, chef Bryan Voltaggio has been making culinary moves. After a series of hints and tweets about a new restaurant called Aggio, the toque debuted the Italian-inspired spot on Valentine’s Day. The new restaurant-within-a-restaurant is located inside Range, though it boasts a separate menu and a white-tablecloth aesthetic.
While a pre-opening promotional video for the spot shows Voltaggio requesting a post-service meal of spaghetti and meatballs, the opening lineup goes well beyond red sauce. Voltaggio tweeted a menu that shows a six-course tasting option, riffs on classic dishes such as calamari Bolognese and prawns fra diavolo over buckwheat polenta, and an $89 Florentine steak for two with sea urchin. The next time you can try it out is Wednesday night; reservations are being taken separately from Range through Aggio’s phone line and OpenTable.
Just on the heels of Aggio’s debut, the Baltimore Sun reports a second location for Charm City at 616 Water Street. The Inner Harbor space is currently occupied by Tatu Asian Grill at Power Plant Live, which will relocate within the complex. Look for an opening by mid-spring, which will make a third Voltaggio spot for Maryland, along with Volt and Family Meal in Frederick.
Chef Mike Isabella may be a Jersey boy at heart, but he’s showing plenty of interest in the Old Dominion State. The toque announced plans for a Kapnos spinoff, Kapnos Taverna, in Ballston this summer. Next, he’s teaming up with Rappahannock Oyster Company’s Travis Croxton and Hilda Staples, who’s already a partner at Graffiato, for a Richmond branch of his popular Penn Quarter Italian eatery.
The new Graffiato will be housed in the historic building at 123 West Broad Street, formerly the home of Popkin Tavern. As at the original, you’ll find pasta and pizza from a wood-burning oven; we’re guessing the calamari-topped Jersey Shore pie and chicken with pepperoni sauce will migrate with the concept. Also in the works: more Prosecco on tap.
Kapnos Taverna isn’t Isabella’s only Ballston project. The chef has teamed up with the Ballston Business Improvement District for a Top Chef-esque competition to find Ballston’s “next great restaurateur.” Aspiring Ballston restaurant owners will submit online applications to the BID, and the most promising applicants will be asked for a business plan. The finalists will go on to participate in various events to demonstrate their skills, including Taste of Arlington. Isabella and the BID plan to select a winner by the end of June. The prize: a year of free restaurant space on the first floor of the Brookfield Office Properties building at 110 North Glebe Road. Let’s keep our fingers crossed Tom and Padma make an appearance somewhere.