Local “fast-casual” joints have investors lining up: Cava Grill recently raised $16 million, following Sweetgreen’s $18.5-million funding round, led by the likes of fast-casual pioneer Danny Meyer of Shake Shack. But can anyone tell us what fast-casual actually means? We asked area foodies.
It’s customizable . . .
Ashok Bajaj, founder, Knightsbridge Restaurant Group:
“I don’t put McDonald’s and Wendy’s in this realm; it’s Chipotle and Sweetgreen: You come in, the food is prepared to your needs, take out or eat in.”
It’s quick but made from scratch . . .
Daisuke Utagawa, co-owner, Daikaya:
“I was raised in Tokyo, and a lot of Japanese eateries are fast-casual. Ramen is a great example—artisan food, but fast. A lot of young chefs want to do away with the formality and just serve good food.”
It suits everybody . . .
Sal Ferro, executive chef, Old Ebbitt Grill:
“I’d say it has a wide variety to choose from: sandwiches and burgers, salads, pastas, a nice piece of fish. A place where you can hold a business meeting or bring your family—including screaming babies.”
It’s super-fast . . .
Anthony Lombardo, executive chef, the Hamilton:
“It’s counter service. Yoga pants and sneakers. And no need to tell me you have free wi-fi—I’m not going to be there long enough to connect.”
Christina Tosi, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef behind Momofuku Milk Bar in New York and Toronto, is coming home. This year Tosi—who grew up in Springfield—will open a branch of her quirky bakery in CityCenterDC, next to sister restaurant Momofuku. Can’t wait that long for Tosi’s playful sweets? Check out her second cookbook, Milk Bar Life, out this month. We spoke to Tosi about her memories of growing up—and eating—in the Washington burbs.
What do you remember about growing up in the area?
Most of my memories are of softball games in Falls Church with my sister, yard sales across town on the weekends with my grandma, grocery-shopping and errand-running with my mom, learning to drive an old Volkswagen bug down Old Keene Mill Road with my dad.
Where were some of your favorite places to eat?
Both of my parents worked incredibly hard, and eating out was a treat. Dinners on the go—en route to a cross-country race, school event, or softball practice—were the norm. My fondest memories of eating out were our trips to Baskin-Robbins on Thursday nights, if my older sister and I had behaved the week prior, and sliding into a booth at Springfield Pizzeria or Delia’s for mozzarella sticks and a cheese pizza. Ding How Carry Out’s egg rolls were always a treat. For really big occasions, we’d dine out with neighbors across the street, on a big bowl of red sauce at Bonaroti in Vienna or Argia’s in Falls Church.
What about now?
I love checking out aspiring bakers’ offerings at local farmers markets when the weather is nice. My older sis, who lives in Reston, does the vetting and gives me the tour when I come home for a slumber party.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Every week, Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon can be found griddling tortillas and slinging their locally sourced, vegetarian Chaia tacos to long lines of fans at the Dupont, White House, and Georgetown University farmers markets. Next up for the pair: a brick-and-mortar Chaia restaurant in Georgetown (3207 Grace St., NW), slated to open this summer. We caught up with them over coffee at the Dog Tag Bakery and talked stinky cheese, Dark and Stormies, and of course, tacos.
Stern: Restaurant Nora. Nora Pouillon is a pioneer in the organic movement. She stuck to her guns, made a difference, and I love that.
Simon: Buck’s Fishing & Camping. It has great service, you know you’re going to get a good meal, and it has the best lighting ever.
Stern: Toigo Orchards would be for the healthy version, whether it’s a peach, pear, or tomato—I’ll snack on a tomato like some people eat an apple. If it was a guilty-pleasure day, Frenchie’s croissants and pain au chocolat.
Simon: Sliced radishes from Tree and Leaf.
Stern: My hangover cure—smoked salmon and bialys. I buy Changing Seas, a Norwegian smoked salmon, at Whole Foods.
Simon: I’m pretty classic. A piece of brown Atwater’s bread with a fried egg, slice of tomato, and salt and pepper.
Stern: Kew Park coffee. You can find it at the Palisades farmers market. Also Farm Girl blend by PT’s Coffee—they’re single-source, responsible.
Simon: Illy espresso.
Stern: I always keep a cookie jar filled with Lärabars, particularly blueberry and lemon.
Simon: I love French fries. Kafe Leopold in Georgetown has really good ones.
Stern: Red-pepper relish, the kind people put on an Italian sandwich. I throw some on black beans and fried eggs. I don’t have a favorite brand—I just buy it anywhere from Safeway to A. Litteri.
Simon: Tabasco, and also a drizzle of hot sesame oil.
Salsa in a jar:
Stern: Frontera chipotle salsa. It’s smooth, with just the right amount of bite.
Simon: Herdez Salsa Casera. It is not fancy, but I like it because it reminds me the most of authentic Mexican salsa and has no added sugar or preservatives. It’s very traditional—you can still see the white of the onion, chopped tomato, a little fresh cilantro.
Stern: Tacos Holas in Mexico City. They have 25 kinds of fillings in big rubber bowls. No sneeze guard or anything. We were in Mexico City three days, and I went there twice.
Simon: TaKorean. I love their tofu taco. They were an inspiration for us to build a taco business.
Stern: I like stinky cheese, so Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog or Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue.
Simon: Real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Slice off a chunk and eat it the Italian way—no cracker, no bread, just roll it around in some really good balsamic vinegar.
Stern: Dark and Stormies. I couldn’t drink them all year long, but they signify summer.
Simon: A margarita. I love tequila because it doesn’t have that sleepy effect—it has that pick-you-up, go-out-dancing effect.
My dream restaurant would have...
Stern: Steps to the beach. There’s a restaurant in Tulum called Posada Margherita. Your feet are in the sand, they’re serving you amazing food that’s not even Mexican, but it’s delicious.
Simon: We’re going to have a Chaia that’s a bed-and-breakfast, and we can just live there. I want to end up by the sea.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
You may know Chevy Chase writer Cathy Barrow from her colorful blog, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen or from the classes on canning and curing she has taught around Washington. Now she’s finished a more ambitious undertaking: her first book, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry (out November 3), a user-friendly guide to stocking a larder with homemade jams, pickles, charcuterie, cheeses, and more. (Sample: “Too busy to can? Jams and preserves made from frozen fruit work equally well and taste just as good.”)
Here Barrow talks about the benefit of building a pantry, tips for beginners, and her favorite places to shop for ingredients:
When did you begin canning and preserving?
I learned when I was very young from my grandmother and mom. But I really dug in five or six years ago, and then it became a bigger process. I took on pressure-canning; I learned to cure meat and make cheese. I came to see preserving as a bigger idea—not just making jam but making foods I would use to cook dinner.
What started you on the path to building your own pantry?
The first thing was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It got me thinking about putting up food in season and eating it later. It seems like such a sensible idea now; it’s kind of funny I hadn’t thought of it before.
What are some of your favorite local farms for buying produce?
In the summer, I’m very fond of Norman’s Farm Market (with roadside stands in Chevy Chase, Bethesda, and Rockville). They have a really nice selection at very reasonable prices. I go religiously to the Broad Branch Farmers’ Market (5701 Broad Branch Rd., NW). There are only five or six vendors, but Nob Hill Orchards has some of the most extraordinary fruit I’ve ever had and Redbud Farm grows beautiful organic food, like haricots verts that I freeze like mad for winter.
Any tips for making storage space once you start down the preserving path?
A lot of preservers I know keep jars of food under their bed or on the top shelves of linen closets they never go into. But if you stash away your preserves, make sure you keep an inventory. Otherwise it’ll be strawberry season and you’ll [already] have 15 jars of strawberry jam.
Do you ever shop at grocery stores?
Absolutely. I go to Giant and Safeway. In season, you’ll see a lot of local produce at both of those. I shop at Trader Joe’s—you can’t beat their prices for citrus. In the winter, I make a lot of citrus preserves or limoncello.
There’s a notion that preserving requires a lot of time and equipment. Can you be a part-time preserver?
I may have the zombie-apocalypse pantry, but you can start with very few things. You need a heavy Dutch oven, like Le Creuset; a stockpot; and tongs. If your pot isn’t big enough to hold quart jars, preserve in pints. If you have those things, that’s all you need. You can MacGyver your way to preserving without any special equipment.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start preserving?
Preserving is science, not really cooking. If you’re the kind of person who thinks a recipe is a suggestion and you can riff, then it’s not the way to approach preserving. On the other side, the very act of preserving can make you a more creative cook. Rather than just saying, “Here’s this strawberry jam—I better find some toast,” you think about how to turn it into a great pan sauce or filling for a cookie. Preserving is just a gateway.
This article appears in our November 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
For all its benefits, Restaurant Week can be a fraught time for all involved. Customers, rightly, want a good dining experience and a good deal. Restaurants, rightly, want to fill seats during an otherwise slow month—the original purpose behind the promotion—and satisfy guests without losing money. Sometimes these interests conflict, and parties on both sides opt out. One such example is chef Dean Gold, co-owner of Dino’s Grotto in Shaw.
“As a longtime participant in it, I just don’t feel like it’s a great deal,” says Gold, who partook in the official Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) Restaurant Weeks for seven years at the original Dino in Cleveland Park.
Gold isn’t ignoring the summer promo entirely, offering an “anti-Restaurant Week” menu that he feels is fair to his customers: ten “tastes of Dino” for $35. Here, he speaks with us about his plans, thoughts on Restaurant Week, and how to find a good meal.
How have you seen Restaurant Week change?
At one point, it was a good thing. I really feel that it went away from restaurants like mine when it went to $35. Basically, the way people eat at my restaurant, $37 is what it takes to have three courses, so you’re saving two bucks. It’s just not that good of a deal.
Every purveyor puts out specials for Restaurant Week. You look at what they’re offering. People who specialize in wild salmon and are pushing it one week want to sell you the lousiest farm-raised salmon for Restaurant Week. Meat companies are putting deals on lesser cuts of conventional beef, when their point of pride is all-natural beef. During Restaurant Week they’re pushing conventional and really poor-quality cuts. If you’re doing Restaurant Week, you need to be able to put together a menu. Restaurants need the help.
When did you begin to see the change?
Probably about two years ago. We track our sales, and the bulk of Restaurant Week had just fallen off dramatically. We try and cobble together something that’s a really good deal for people, and if you don’t get a big bump, it’s not a good thing.
They [RAMW] have partnered with OpenTable, and if you’re not on OpenTable, it’s hard to get a bump from Restaurant Week. It cost us $2,000 a month [for OT]. Then it’s another $1,000 to be part of Restaurant Week, because we had to pay $500 to the Association and then another $500 to be part of the promotion [dues are based on the annual gross sales of the restaurant]. I finally got fed up with it and just said, hey, let’s be honest. It’s not a good deal.
Why do you think it’s less of a good deal now?
More and more people are doing it. You have a small group of people who do it right, with a full menu and so on. One comment today on a chat was if the restaurant doesn’t offer three choices, one of them being vegetarian, the restaurant isn’t doing right by Restaurant Week. I was like, “Whoa, three choices?” I don’t go to a restaurant for three choices. I might go for my favorite dish, but that’s not the way I dine in a restaurant.
It’s also part of the increase in the deal mentality—you have the LivingSocial, Groupon phenomenon. You’re bringing in people who like the culture of the deal sites, who aren’t going to pay full price. A lot of people are going to restaurants they wouldn’t go to because it’s Restaurant Week, which is part of the idea, but they’re less in tune with what those restaurants are doing.
Is there any way to tell at the outset if you’re going to have a good Restaurant Week experience in a restaurant?
You have to look at the menu. Look at their regular menu, and then look at what they’re offering you, and see if they match up. If the menu is very different, then you’re looking at a place that’s faking you out.
Did it used to be that more high-end restaurants participated, so diners felt they were really getting value?
More high-end restaurants are participating today than they used to. For the most part, it’s absolutely not what they’re doing on an everyday basis. It’s not what their food is about. There are restaurants that normally have very particular ingredients and offer really outstanding quality products, and then you come into Restaurant Week and it’s all very conventional.
If you had to go to a place for Restaurant Week, where would you choose?
Bastille; I think it’s really solid cooking. Very few restaurants are posting menus on the RAMW site, so it’s tough. Daikaya has an interesting approach, with a lot of different small plates. That, to me, because of the variety, would be a place I’d go.
The U Street neighborhood around Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909) may be evolving, but many elements of the historic eatery remain the same. A line forms at noon for chili-drenched half-smokes; you might find anyone, from presidents to construction workers, sitting at the counter; and Bernadette “Peaches” Halton still makes the chili after 37 years. We caught up with the veteran cook responsible for Ben’s most famous dish after her shift—which starts at midnight and ends at 11 am—to talk about her career and her favorite comfort foods.
How did you start making the chili?
I started as a counter person after high school. One day, in ’79, the original owner [Ben Ali] asked me to mix the chili up and put the pot on the stove. I was pregnant with my son—the pots are very heavy, about five gallons. And since then I’ve been making the chili.
Do you have any favorite dishes you like to eat at Ben’s?
No! After 37 years? Well, if I do, my coworker Mary and I have some country bacon or sausage. Though if we were cooking crabs, I could eat them all the time. I love Mike’s Crab House near Annapolis for Buffalo shrimp, clams, and steamed crabs. I’ll also go down to Captain White on the Southwest waterfront and cook my own.
How have you kept the recipe a secret so long?
You just don’t tell anybody! Tell them it’s made with love.
Since you have breakfast at 11 in the morning after your shift, what’s your favorite thing to eat?
A salad or some Ethiopian food, injera. My coworker makes me a house salad with lettuce, tomato, green peppers, and onions, sometimes avocado, and a dressing with hot sauce and lemon.
Celebrity photos line the walls at Ben’s. Who were the best to meet?
I’m really not big on celebrities, but I did meet Eddie Levert, Gerry Levert’s father. Also Mary J. Blige, Wendy Williams, Tyrese. I’d just left [when President Obama visited], but they called me and told me and I was like, “Tell him I say, ‘What’s up?’ ”
In the decade since his landmark restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, opened in New York’s Hudson Valley, Dan Barber has emerged as one of the most recognizable figures in the farm-to-table movement. He’s delivered TED Talks on sustainable farming, penned op-eds for the New York Times, and currently serves on President Obama’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. But in his new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the James Beard Award-winning chef challenges food lovers to think beyond the farmers market and embrace what he calls a “new pattern of eating.”
“The third plate is not a literal plate of food,” says Barber, who will discuss the book at Politics & Prose on Monday, June 16. “It’s a metaphor for a way of eating.”
If the first plate is the traditional American meal—more meat, fewer vegetables—and the second plate is a locally sourced variation on the first, Barber’s third plate represents a new food architecture. It’s about showcasing grains, vegetables, and the “entirety of the agricultural landscape”—not just protein.
“We use the expression ‘nose-to-tail’ eating of an animal,” he says. “We should also be including the nose-to-tail eating of an entire farm.”
We spoke with Barber about the limitations of the farm-to-table movement, his hopes for a new agricultural system, and the changes we can make on our plates.
What does the third plate mean, and how is it different from farm-to-table?
The third plate is not a literal plate of food. It’s a metaphor for a way of eating. We tend to simplify our food choices down to very convenient labels, like ‘local’ and ‘organic,’ and then bumper-sticker slogans like ‘eat green.’ In some ways the third plate is another label, but it’s a label—an attempt, anyway—to articulate a pattern of eating that brings all of these elements together. None of our simplistic ideas about farm-to-table cooking are making an on-the-ground statement for the future of really good food. While farm-to-table has gone viral and become an exciting social movement, you still have an industrial food system that’s gaining ground and getting bigger, not smaller.
What I came to realize through the research of this book is that we need to look at this a little differently. It’s not a rejection of farm-to-table at all. I’m a card-carrying member of the movement. I have a farm-to-table restaurant, and I have a family farm, so I’ve got a skin in the game. I’m really looking at this in a hardheaded way and saying that from what I understand, we need to dig a lot deeper.
What specific changes does that entail for the different segments of our food system?
I think the largest shift we need to make is a cultural one—away from a protein-centric plate of food; the eight-ounce steak or fish that predominates our expectation for lunch and dinner seven days a week. That’s something that unfortunately has become inculcated; it is American cuisine. It’s an agricultural anomaly because we’ve been able to support it based on a lot of different factors. Unfortunately we’re exporting that philosophy, that way of eating, to the rest of the world.
What we have to do is turn that protein-centric plate of food on its head, and eat the entirety of the farm landscape. We use the expression “nose-to-tail” eating of an animal. We should also include nose-to-tail eating of a farm. That includes less-desired grains and even cover crops, and to a certain extent, vegetables. The farm-to-table movement calls on us to eat a lot more vegetables from small family farms—I’m not looking at that as closely, in part because vegetable production is about 6 percent of our landscape. Grains and legumes, but mostly grains, are anywhere from 70 to 80 percent. So if we’re really talking about changing agriculture, we’ve got to start with grain agriculture, because it’s the dominant force in our system. The way we eat is to a certain extent determined by how we treat our grains.
You’ve written and spoken a lot about these issues for years now. When did you decide to write a book about it?
I started out being really excited about a couple of ingredients—wheat was one of them, luckily. I say “luckily” because I didn’t understand how grain was the dominant force of the entire food system.
I started searching out these incredible-tasting things, like wheat, and figuring out how they were grown or raised. What I realized in the research was that I was asking the wrong question. I was asking about a specific ingredient, and what I kept getting pointed to was a whole system of farming. I kept getting pointed to soil, which is why it takes up so much of the book. All roads led to healthy soil. Sort of like Russian dolls, it kept unfolding into larger and larger issues—dealing with the systems and community and history and culture. I saw a plate of food as connecting in all these ways I didn’t understand intuitively.
Part of the reason farm-to-table has taken off is because it seems simple, but what you’re proposing in The Third Plate is much more holistic, and involves every part of food culture. Where do you think change needs to start in order for it to be effective? Or does it need to happen on all these fronts at once?
What you’re saying is that my book is very complicated. I understand that, and it’s what I struggle with: How does the message become universal? And you’re right, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the farm-to-table movement because it’s direct and connected. It’s a refreshing idea without being too complicated.
The issue here is that the reality of farm-to-table is not direct and connected. The farmer services the table. There’s a through-line to go to the farmers market and buy something local and shake the hand of the farmer; there’s something very satisfying about that. But that’s a very passive system.
Ten years ago, I don’t know that a lot of people could have described what farm-to-table was. It was a much more complicated subject than we give it credit for today. It’s been simplified, in part because it’s been so successful. My problem with it is that we’ve enrobed ourselves with the notion—let me put this closer to home—I have held up the farm-to-table flag in a way that says, “This is the answer to our industrialized food system. This is the answer to the future of great eating and good agriculture.” In fact that’s not true, because we’re using the farmers market just like we would a supermarket. We’re choosing the ingredients we most want to eat. While that purchase is a lot better than selecting from commodified agriculture, it’s ultimately about us choosing the cream of the crop—like the asparagus and peas that I got from the farmers market the other day. These crops are really specialty crops. We need to start diversifying our plates in ways that economize a farmer’s decisions. There’s a whole suite of choices there that we don’t support.
I went to a farmer who grows fantastic wheat, Klaas Martens, and stood in the middle of 2,000 acres. I saw very little wheat. I saw rye and buckwheat and millet and leguminous crops such as kidney beans. I wasn’t buying any of that stuff. Most of it was either plowed into the ground for cover crop or fed to animals. We’re using those soil-building crops by eating meat, which is inefficient. If there were a market for them, you would improve the ecology of a farm, and also economize those crops for a farmer. As of now those are sunk costs. Part of the reason that a lot of ingredients are so expensive—part of the reason the wheat I was buying was so expensive—is because of the dozens and dozens of other crops this farmer treated as sunk costs. So I was paying a lot for the wheat because he needed to rotate in ten different crops to get the right fertility for his soil. That’s not an intelligent or efficient way to think about the future of a food system.
The question is: Are we creating an economy for that farmer to make the right decisions? Right now, we are doing very little. And yet we’re still claiming, or I’m still claiming as a farm-to-table chef, that I am supporting the local farmer. You are to a certain extent, but you’re also not.
If farms need to change the way they farm, what government policies can be implemented to further the mission?
There are quite a few levers here. One from the book that strikes me as broadening the definition of farm-to-table is the land-grant university system. This is the wholesale sellout that has been occurring for the past 30 years.
That’s just one. A lot of legislation has stood in the way of good farming becoming part of the American landscape. Midsize farms are something I mention in the book, but not enough. The small family farmer, which we tend to associate with this movement, has done well since farm-to-table became the successful social movement I talked about earlier. But large industrial farms—the ones that essentially grow the corn and the soy and the wheat—continue to get larger and do quite well. It’s the ones in the middle—something like 40 percent of our farmland is in this range—that are getting squeezed.
The distribution system in this country, through Washington legislation, favors large agriculture and large interests. I’m not talking about supporting the mom and pop who pack up a pickup truck and drive to a farmers market. They don’t need our tax dollars because they have a direct market. It’s the midsize family farms who are too big to pack up a pickup truck but too small for the Walmart-ification of the food system. They need help. And there are political levers to pull, especially with the cost of distribution, because it’s not about the yield they’re producing. They’re producing a lot. They can’t economize getting their product to market because there’s so much that stands in the way of diversification. We’ve enacted laws that favor a very small diet of essentially corn and soy and wheat. We need to diversify because, as I said, we need to look at a better food system, and we need government intervention to help keep those costs competitive with the industrial entities that predominate our food-growing ways.
One of the anecdotes in the book that I most enjoyed was about the late DC chef Jean-Louis Palladin giving you your first taste of foie gras in a restaurant. I wonder if you have any thoughts about how the landscape of food in DC has changed since then.
I don’t know DC well enough, but I know that Jean-Louis did a lot to update the food scene there. What I’m always struck by when I’m in DC is the farmers markets and the quality of farming that’s happening around DC—and always has. The Shenandoah Valley is something that I’m totally envious of because of the quality of what’s produced there. Jean-Louis as a Washingtonian influenced the farm-to-table movement and the pursuit of great cooking in ways that haven’t gotten enough credit, and are probably more profound than anyone who has ever cooked in the country.
Which celebrity chef-restaurateur has the biggest presence in Washington? If you’re thinking José Andrés, that’s partially right. The other, lesser-known, answer: Richard Sandoval, who claims the same number of eateries in the area as Andrés between Masa 14, two locations of El Centro D.F., Zengo, Ambar, La Sandia, the recently opened Toro Toro, and two more officially on the way. The Mexico City-born toque owns over 30 restaurants worldwide, but has opened more in Washington than any other city in the world, from Denver to Dubai, with the help of partners like Kaz Okochi (Kaz Sushi Bistro) and Ivan Iracanin. We spoke with Sandoval about why he’s picked Washington, what’s coming next—maybe more than you think—and the keys to a successful restaurant.
You’ve made Washington home to more of your restaurants than any other city. Why?
I like to build where I have a presence, and Washington has been very good to our restaurants. We’ve built a sense of community there, and feel very at home. We prefer to grow in markets where we have a presence in the community and people enjoy what we do.
Your restaurants are in a number of neighborhoods across Washington. How do you pick the areas?
We were very successful when we opened Masa 14, and 14th Street was just up-and-coming. People get scared when more restaurants come in, but if you’re good at what you do, more restaurants and people come to the area. We like to go into neighborhoods that are just evolving. Once you get into a neighborhood that’s completely evolved, like 14th Street now, rents have doubled. Even if it takes longer for your business to evolve, we like to be the first to develop the area and set trends.
How do you decide which existing concepts, like Toro Toro (originally in Dubai), to bring here?
Fortunately and unfortunately, when I started my career in New York City 17 years ago, it would have been easier if I did Maya and then just more Mayas. But I took a different approach. I go into neighborhoods and cities, and I try to understand what the community needs instead of saying ‘I have Maya, copy and paste it here.’ We go into an area and try to understand the demographic, and then I develop a concept and build the restaurant around that. That’s how I ended up with nine different brands.
What’s up next for Washington?
Mango Tree is the next for DC, opening in City Center in December. I’m very, very excited for that restaurant. Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. When I met the owners of Mango Tree I thought the food was amazing, but I wanted to bring another element to it, more of a dining experience with music, design, lighting, and food. Kind of what I did for Mexican you’ll see there; an elevated style.
Tell me a bit about your upcoming Mexican spot in Shaw, and how it’ll be different than the two El Centro locations.
It’s going to be very similar to El Centro, but a little bit smaller. As far as the menu, we’ll probably have a larger emphasis on tacos, with a global taco section where I want to incorporate ingredients from other countries. Our beverage program will be similar, we’ll have a lot of infused tequila, but we’ll put a larger emphasis on mezcal.
If you could open any kind of restaurant in DC, not necessarily realistic, what would you do and where would it be?
The next thing I want to introduce in Washington is Peruvian. You see a lot of chicken rotisseries, but you haven’t seen a real Peruvian restaurant. I think I’d do it in Georgetown, actually. At Toro Toro we have some dishes, but this would be classic Peruvian with my modern twist; a big ceviche bar, dishes using their chilies, the many kinds of potatoes and stews. I’m talking about it to somebody, so don’t be surprised if we announce it!
A number of your restaurants have the fusion elements, and it can be tough to do well. Do you have rules when it comes to making fusion dishes or menus?
Yes, absolutely. You always hear the saying ‘fusion is confusion.’ In order to put cuisines together they have to have some similarities. For example, I could never fuse Mexican and Italian; there aren’t similarities as far as ingredients or flavor profiles. But then you look at Mexican and Asian cuisine, and they use similar grains, chilies, sweet-and-spicy flavors. Those cuisines you can meld.
Washington has seen a growing number of top chefs and international restaurateurs like yourself seeking a presence here. What do you think of the trend?
I think in the coming years we’ll see a lot more big-name chefs, but I also think we’ll get to a point where the market could get saturated. They’ll be more careful as to where they open and when they open. In the last two years the market was maybe underserved, and now it’s getting to the point of … it won’t be over-saturated, but I think we have to be careful.
Your restaurants often have an entertainment factor, whether it’s DJs, dancing, or a separate lounge. What’s the importance of having that element?
As the dining scene changed in the last ten years with the recession, it was difficult. You had to develop other ways for people to stay in your restaurant, have fun, and spend money. If people are eating and drinking, and then have to go to another venue, we thought ‘why can’t we create that in one place?’ You’d have dinner, go to the basement, have drinks and DJs. You always have nightclub people who want to open restaurants, and they fail because they don’t understand the dynamic of a restaurant. And then you have restaurateurs who say ‘these people who open lounges make so much money, let’s do that,’ and so they take the restaurant, hire a DJ, and they think that’s it. I think the most important piece is that we’re food-driven. If people keep coming back for your food and service in the restaurant, you’re never going to lose that.
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.
Of all the Irish pubs in Washington, few boast the longevity and history of the Dubliner. Founder Danny Coleman opened the doors of the Capitol Hill institution in 1974, and has been serving pints of Guinness to guests—including President Obama and other notables—for 40 years. The pub and adjoining hotel are also grounds for one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington, which attracts up to 5,000 revelers each year (who tend to make their way through an impressive 100-plus kegs).
Danny’s son Gavin Coleman has taken over the day-to-day operations, and along with his father plans to roll out a few new features after the holiday. In addition to an expanded collection of rare Irish whiskeys, guests will find one of the biggest menu revisions in the past four decades. While the classics like fish and chips and shepherd’s pie will remain, Gavin says about 40 percent of the dishes will change. Here the father-and-son duo talk about St. Patrick’s days past, pouring Guinness for the President, and their go-to hangover remedies.
Tell us about the first St. Patrick’s Day at the Dubliner 40 years ago.
Danny Coleman: It was March 17, 1974. I’d just opened, and this neighborhood was a little rough at the time. I was very nervous, because I didn’t know if anyone would show up! But we hired an Irish band and opened at 8 o’clock in the morning, and for the first hour we sold beer for 17 cents. Guess what? There were hundreds of people there. I did that for four or five years, but then I’d come in the next day and there’d be people sleeping in the doorway still drunk from the night before. Now we open at 10 and don’t sell beer for 17 cents.
What was the most eventful St. Patrick’s Day celebration?
Gavin Coleman: Without a doubt, it was two years ago when Obama came to visit. We had no advance notice, only about 15 or 20 minutes, when a Secret Service agent found me to let me know the President was on his way. That was amazing. Obama also has a cousin in Ireland whom he saw on a state visit, and they had a pint in the local pub. He brought over his cousin, Henry Healy, and the owner of the pub. Ever since then they still come in during the week of St. Patrick’s Day.
When you heard Obama was coming, what was your first thought?
GC: That day it was, “Where am I going to put him?” We were already open for St. Patrick’s Day, and he came around 12:30 when the Dubliner was already full. I was pretty proud he’d chosen us. We found out after that the White House had taken a poll about where he should go, and so it felt like recognition for everything my father and I have put into it for the past 40 years.
What are some other highlights from the past four decades?
DC: When there was a lot of trouble in Ireland, President Clinton wanted to make sure he helped negotiate the peace process. He’d invite people from both sides—Catholics and Protestants—and they all stayed in the hotel here and drank in the Dubliner. Even though the perception was that there’s a big war going on in Ireland, they were over here drinking Guinness together. I always felt we were an important part of the peace process, because they could come over here and talk to each other without getting ridiculed by their neighbors. It’s too bad the rest of Capitol Hill doesn’t work [that way], as well.
Not many restaurants in DC have been open for 40 years. What’s your key to success?
DC: You have to have the service disposition and personality. You have to care that people are having a really good time, without concern about who they are or how much money they’re spending. You can’t fake it.
GC: I took over the day-to-day operations ten years ago, and people ask, “Is your dad retired?” And I’m always like “No, he’ll be in soon.” You never really retire from doing this. He still does what he did 40 years ago: comes in and talks to people. It’s a family restaurant, and that’s how it’ll continue to be run.
What’s your recommended hangover remedy for after St. Patrick’s Day?
GC: A pint of Guinness. It’s the best way to do it. That and an Irish country breakfast.
DC: Yep, hair of the dog. Back in the day I would overindulge on occasion—which I don’t do anymore—and my motto was, “Only an amateur is sober enough to have a hangover.”