In a town filled with power restaurants, Bourbon Steak reigns among the top. The Four Seasons spot opened its doors in 2009 and is well-known among food lovers and people watchers alike, having played host to visiting Hollywood elite and the Obamas on their 20th anniversary. Now Michael Mina, the celebrity chef-restaurateur behind it all, is in town for the restaurant’s fifth anniversary celebration. We spoke with the toque about his future in Washington, catering to celebs, and philosophy on managing 19 restaurants.
We’re coming up on Bourbon Steak’s five-year anniversary. Has it grown in the way you originally expected?
I would say, knock on wood (in a very positive way), even more so. I remember when we opened people in DC were positive, but the one thing they kept saying was ‘why a steakhouse?’ And I kept saying: just because the word ‘steak’ is in the name doesn’t mean we’re limited to that. A big part of what we tried to achieve—and are still trying to achieve—is to be a great restaurant, not just a steakhouse.
Do you think DC is a more steakhouse-friendly town than others?
The word ‘steak’ in the title helps in any city. Often when you have larger parties that can’t decide where to go, they’ll lean towards a steak restaurant. There are definitely nights in San Francisco when Bourbon Steak will do more covers than Michael Mina. I wouldn’t say it’s a DC-related. People love steak all over the United States.
What is your all-time favorite kind of steak?
It’s called the rib cap. It’s a very limited cut. You know when you go out for an old school prime rib, and there’s a little piece on top that’s always overcooked? That cut when you butcher it out—before you cook the ribeye—is called the rib cap. It’s as tender as a filet, with the flavor of a ribeye.
If you could design your dream meal at Bourbon Steak, what you order?
I’ll usually start with shellfish, like a tasting platter on ice. When I’m with people I’ll do a steak tartar and a tuna tartar, so they can taste the difference. And there’s a dish on the [DC] menu right now from chef John Critchley that’s a rockfish tagine. It’s a little unexpected; he pressure-cooks pine nuts so they’re like beans, and it’s a really fun play on a tagine. And then I’ll always do the rib cap, a truffle mac and cheese, and about three or four seasonal sides. Dessert is the Macallan custard with beignets.
What do you see for Bourbon Steak DC in the next five years?
I think that Bourbon Steak DC is constantly evolving. When restaurants start to mature—and usually the five-year time is the time when the restaurant starts to settle in and have its own personality—your job is to grow it. We have the great outdoor bar there, and we’re trying to cover part of it so we can use it more months out of the year. That’s one big goal for us over the next couple of years.
With 19 restaurants in the Mina Group, what’s your approach to reviews, both from professional critics and online forums like Yelp?
My philosophy has always been that it’s really important to look at all your Yelp scores, to read your reviews, and be in tune to what they are. The easy way out is to say ‘people don’t know what they’re talking about.’ There’s always room to improve in a restaurant. A restaurant is better or worse every day than it was the day before. It’s impossible not to be, because it’s human. The way to make it better is to keep pushing, keep everyone on their toes and thinking. A lot of times when you get a bad review, you say to yourself ‘wow, they’re not pushing.’ Having said that, there are times when I don’t believe reviews, when people start taking personal shots at you.
I was really bothered early on by people taking shots at chefs for expanding to more than one restaurant. I thought it was really unfair that you’d have a ‘restaurateur’—who nine times out of ten was a lawyer who’d taken advantage of a chef—and they had multiple restaurants and were geniuses. Yet when a chef did it, it wasn’t right. Now you see chefs have done it, and the food in this country is continuing to get better. There are great restaurateurs too, don’t get me wrong, and I won’t disagree that it’s tough to do multiple restaurants early on. But as you build, young talented people come to work for you, all the sudden you’re learning from them. If I’d never gone out and done more than one restaurant, my food wouldn’t be as good as it is today. I’ve learned a lot from people who work for me.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young chef with aspirations to own multiple places, what would you say?
I’d say the whole focus needs to be growing people around you, and keeping a core of people together. You’ll never be able to do it all yourself. And how to keep people around you is sharing everything. I worked for a couple chefs early on who you couldn’t get a recipe from, and it makes no sense. It’s all about transparency.
Bourbon Steak DC is known as a popular celebrity go-to. Is there a key to catering to celebrity clientele?
You want to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they’ll let you know if they want a special meal. We always offer for the chef to cook for them. It’s ‘here’s the menu, the chef would love to cook for you as well if you’d like that.’ Sometimes they’ll say yes, and other times they’ll say no and based on how they order—if they order really light—we’ll send out a little something. Otherwise we’ll usually send out one course in the middle, and leave it at that.
You just opened Bourbon Steak & Pub in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium. Will you have Redskins specials when they play?
It’s all about who’s into football, so I would invite José [Andrés] to come cook with me; I’m inviting chefs to every game. When we’re playing against other teams it’ll be a combination of dishes from there, and what the team is known for. For The Hogs [a nickname for the Redskins offensive line] I’d do a whole pig, and then I’d do some regional dishes, like soft shell crab or a Maryland crab dish and a San Francisco-style crab dish.
Is Bourbon Steak & Pub a one-time venture, or can we hope for one in DC?
It’s a one-time venture now, but you never know where life takes you. Right now Bourbon Steak DC is such a big restaurant in terms of volume, plus we did the two restaurants in Baltimore. I’ll tell you the one comment I get constantly is ‘when are you going to bring Pabu to Washington?’ That would be one that I feel would fit, but I don’t have any plans of doing it now.
If you could open any kind of restaurant in the world, and it could be be completely outrageous, what would it be like?
Since it can be fictional, it would be on a beach. I’d be able to get products from all over the world, and it would be all no-shoes, tables in the sand. There would be only two ways you could cook: live-fire, and everything else would be raw.
Former White House chef John Moeller served three presidents during his stint in the kitchen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from 1992 to 2005: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. In that time he saw the expansion of American cuisine, the effects of 9/11, and the rising political role of chefs. All of that and more is detailed in his new memoir/cookbook, Dining at the White House. We spoke with the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, native about First Families’ likes and dislikes, cooking for picky foreign dignitaries, and the dish that won over both a Democratic and a Republican President.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting together this memoir/cookbook?
The most challenging part is laying it out and constructing a story and letting it flow. I was then able to throw in a lot of historical information, so I could combine historical facts with the story. Once we started doing that, the fun part was reliving the whole thing again.
George H.W. Bush banned broccoli from his menus. Were there ever other blacklisted foods?
Not really. We heard more about the favorites. As time went by, we incorporated a lot of vegetables into the menus. The ’90s were a fun time. We were going through a revolution in terms of cuisine, and there were a lot of new products. Chelsea [Clinton] didn’t like mushrooms, so we tried to stay away from those. The Clintons loved artichokes. Actually, all the families did.
You served both Bush administrations and the Clintons. Who had the most adventurous tastes?
I would probably say Bush Sr. They were very well-traveled, and we never wrote up menus ahead of time. We did that for the other Bushes and the Clintons. For Bush Sr., we just knew the parameters of things. There was the whole broccoli thing, but if you see everything they did eat, it outweighed everything else. I came from French kitchens and did everything I’d normally do—calf’s liver, oysters on the half shell, a Japanese-themed meal with sushi rolls and miso soup. When you’re cooking for the same people every day, you’re always looking for more things to work with.
How much creative license do you have as a White House chef, versus cooking from a canon of pre-approved recipes?
There’re two aspects of it. You’re basically a private chef cooking for the family. You learn what their likes and dislikes are, you write down notes, look at every plate that comes back; they push carrots to the side, they don’t like peas, etc. You try different things, but you have to know the parameters to work around. The other aspect is officially writing for state dinners and events. We’re officially a banquet house. There are no two menus that are exactly the same. I could work with local ingredients, seasonal ingredients. That’s the beauty of cooking—you look for inspiration everywhere.
What were the most interesting likes or dislikes you were told about?
Foreign dignitaries would come in, and I’d wait for their dietary restrictions, allergies, or preferences to start writing menus. The most unusual was the Prime Minister of Italy. He came in about ten years ago. The form said, “Does not like garlic, onions, and tomatoes.” I thought, “You have to be kidding! He can’t be Italian!” I think I made chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes.
You have a section in the book dedicated to 9/11. How did you see security change when it came to food?
Security in the property changed, and that also affected the food. We have ways of getting food in there—there’re no trucks backing up to the White House on a daily basis—so we had to go pick things up. We had a meeting with the Secret Service and FBI in the weeks after 9/11 looking at everything we do. There’s no harm done now, but they basically said, “We have reason to believe they’ll try to deliver something through the food network.” We changed our way of procuring food and how we did things.
How do you think the role of the White House chef has changed in the past eight years?
From the time I went in and came out, it became more political. Do you remember what happened the day after president-elect Clinton became President Clinton? A letter was sent by Alice Waters, plus a petition signed by other chefs. It primarily said, “It’s time we have an American chef in the White House.” One of the reasons I was picked was that I was American with a French background.
You have a great story in the book about the adventures of finding fresh dover sole for Nancy Reagan when she visited. Did you field other interesting requests?
I wasn’t going to serve the former First Lady a frozen piece of sole! You just have to put out fires sometimes. There’ve been a number of times when I had to run out and pick things up just to make meals happen. Once the First Lady and President Clinton were heading out for church on a Sunday morning about 10:30, and she turns to the usher and says, “We’ll be back in an hour with about 20 for brunch.” I can’t remember half the things I did—an egg soufflé, maybe—but you just have produce it and make it happen. You need a wide range of cooking abilities so you can satisfy their needs.
Did you notice a difference in taste between Republicans and Democrats?
No, they’re all pretty hungry people. One winter day in ’96 I did a Pennsylvania Dutch-style chicken pot pie, where you cook the noodles into it. I love it, and it’s very flavorful. I made it for President Clinton, and found him over the bowl, wolfing it down. I could see the top of his eyeballs. He gave me the thumbs up and said, “This is the kind of food I like.” It became part of the rotation. Ironically, when George W. Bush came in, I made the same style of pot pie. I found him leaning over the bowl; he gave me a thumbs up and said almost the exact same thing: “John, this is the kind of food I like.”
New BLT Steak toque Jeremy Shelton has cooked at the restaurant for just under a month, but we’re already seeing changes on the steakhouse menu. The toque arrived from Miami, having cooked at Scott Conant’s Scarpetta and a branch of Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak. We spoke with the avid hunting fan about his ideal steakhouse dinner, making moist turkey (it’s almost Thanksgiving, after all), and what he’d like to cook for the First Couple.
What’s your ideal BLT Steak meal?
I’d probably go with the classics and have tuna tartare to start, then the rib eye with the bone marrow, and finish off with the peanut butter mousse. It doesn’t get much better than that.
You’ve been described as a “Wagyu master.” How do you become one?
Those were certainly not my words! Right now we have three main cuts, and we’ve put on a Wagyu strip—it’s probably an eight, nine grade if you want to put it on the scale—and it’s all Australian Wagyu. I’m trying to get ahold of some American Wagyu. We’re really looking to add some cuts at a more reasonable price, so you don’t have to go out and spend $90 just to eat a Wagyu steak.
If you really want to splurge, what’s the best Wagyu you can get in the States?
That’s definitely the Japanese A5 Wagyu, hands down. It all depends on how you serve it, but BLT Steak [in New York] sells it at $25 an ounce with a four-ounce minimum, and that’s probably along the lines of what we’ll do. It’s just so rich and fatty and decadent that you can’t eat too much of it.
You worked at Scarpetta. Will we see Italian influences on the menu?
Scarpetta was one of those dream restaurants where everything seemed perfect. The chef’s name was Mike Pirolo, and he was a large influence on me in terms of molding my career. I shifted from being a cook to more of a chef that thinks outside the box, and makes things better wherever I am. That was one of my best restaurant experiences, and I fell in love with pasta. The beauty of Italian food is that it’s so simple and straightforward, and very ingredient-based. Still, I want to make sure what we’re doing stays true to the concept of the restaurant.
What are some of the new dishes you’re excited about?
We have a cobia dish right now with cauliflower purée, uni, and finger limes. It’s ash-crusted: basically scallions that we put it in the 1,200-degree broiler until they’re completely charred, and then grind it all up and crust the top of the cobia with that ash. You think it’s going to taste burnt, but it just has this earthy, savory flavor to it. It works really well with the cobia, because it’s such a fatty fish. And then we have the finger-lime vinaigrette, which is like a caviar that pops in your mouth.
What are some of the things you’ll do with the bar menu?
We’re looking to get a more snack-based bar menu going—not something that’s just easy to share at happy hour, but more through the course of the night. We’re basically trying to revamp the entire thing. We talked about making jerky, and it’s something I love to do, I just want to make sure we do it in a way that’s true to the concept of the restaurant. You don’t want businessmen coming in and sitting down to eat a piece of jerky.
The Obamas have been know to drop by BLT Steak. If they came in tomorrow and you could make anything, what would it be?
One of the things I have on the blackboard menu now is a confit pork shank. It’s confited for three and a half hours in lard—I know that doesn’t sound so appealing—and then it’s deep-fried. We braise it in a caramelized onion jus to order, and it’s served over polenta with gremolata on top. It’s so good.
Since we’re coming up on Thanksgiving, what’s your tip for moist turkey?
You have to keep checking it, and when you think it might be done, it probably is. You have to go with your gut instinct, and don’t be afraid to undercook it. Once you overcook it, it becomes dry, but if it’s undercooked you can always cut into it and throw it back in the oven for a little bit. I think it’s also best for the anatomy of the bird to separate the legs and the thighs from the breast and roast the breast separately.
Metro Cooking DC returns to the Convention Center this weekend with plenty of culinary star power. One of our favorites: Hugh Acheson, author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook A New Turn in the South, and a recurring Top Chef judge. We talked with the Georgia-based restaurateur about his favorite cookbooks, the essence of Southern cuisine, and what the heck to do with kohlrabi.
Do you have any plans for dining while you’re in Washington?
I’m there so briefly. I do love the city, though. My sister lives in Alexandria. People like José Andrés and Eric Ziebold are just amazingly important to the food scene. Restaurant Eve, Zaytinya, and CityZen—all those places are usually high on the list.
You’re focusing on A New Turn in the South at the Metro Cooking show. What other cookbook projects are you working on right now?
I have one coming out in March, which is more of a gift book on pickles called Pick a Pickle. It’s 50 fermentation and pickling recipes. I’m working on another called Eat Well, which is a look at how you use everything in your CSA box. It kind of evolved from people asking me things like, “What the heck do you do with kohlrabi?,” and me having to answer. So I’m going to answer in book form.
So what the heck do you do with kohlrabi?
I like making kohlrabi slaws. You know that simple, mayonnaise-less chopped slaw with lots of lime, some roasted chilies, and really finely cut kohlrabi. Just let that sit at room temperature and macerate. You can also make purées with it, or roast the batons.
What’s the most challenging thing to find in your CSA?
Eight weeks of lettuce is always a little challenging. People wane toward the end of it. I like lettuce and salad, but it’s hard to make sure you’re using it all. I love grilling firmer lettuces like romaine. Sautéed lettuces are really good, almost like you’re cooking in a wok. There’s a lot of versatility in them.
This city has its fair share of burger chains—as this guide demonstrates—so it takes something special for Washingtonians to line up for half an hour in 90-degree heat. That something special would be Danny Meyer’s New York-based chain Shake Shack, which just opened a location in Penn Quarter. Despite the existence of a nearly identical branch in Dupont, the city happily queued up for Shackburgers and concretes on Tuesday. We caught up with Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti, who’s led the New York-based operation for the past eight years, to learn about local collaborations, future restaurants, and that sweet deal with Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken.
I’ve read about your careful approach to picking locations. What spoke to you about 800 F Street, Northwest?
The crazy irony is we started looking in DC almost four years ago. This site was literally the first [Washington] location we stepped into and said, “I wonder if this could be a Shake Shack.” Then it took us two years after that to find our Dupont Circle location.
Shake Shack becomes this gathering place where every walk of life comes, every income level, every tourist, local, mom, grandma, kid. We felt like this corner represented that as well as anywhere else we could think in DC. So here we are! I’m sitting and watching now, and the line is around the block.
Will the menu always be the same as the Dupont location?
We always want to keep the core menu the same. Last year we launched our SmokeShack, which was our first ever bacon burger, and that obviously launches here, as well. And then we have our concretes that are only available here. It’s kind of a fun play on our location both here in DC and near the Spy Museum.
Restaurateur Alan Popovsky is best known for Lincoln, his whimsical ode to Honest Abe featuring dishes such as pork belly beignets and bone marrow and biscuits.
Designer Maggie O’Neill created the restaurant’s art installations, including the famous penny floor featuring more than a million coins. Popovsky and O’Neill have teamed up again at Teddy & the Bully Bar, the new Theodore Roosevelt-inspired spot opening at 1200 19th Street, Northwest, in late June. Popovsky plucked Michael Hartzer—last seen at Jack Rose in Adams Morgan—to helm the kitchen, which will include some of Teddy’s favorite dishes.
But we’ll let him tell you all about it. Check out this video, in which Popovsky, O’Neill, and Hartzer take us inside the exciting new project.
Last fall, cocktail historian and Washingtonian Philip Greene published To Have and Have Another, a historical account and collection of drink recipes based on the life and work of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a fascinating look at how the author incorporated drinking into his prose, and offers Papa devotees a way to delve deeper into those hauntingly evocative scenes—by making the drinks as the characters might have enjoyed them.
You can catch Greene on Thursday, February 28, at the Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Neighborhood Library, where he’ll be talking about the book and signing copies (a volume is included in the $50 ticket price). There will also be an open bar with two cocktails based on Greene’s research. The event benefits the DC Public Library Foundation. See more details on the Museum of the American Cocktail’s website, and read on for our conversation with Greene about his research process and what Hemingway’s favorite Washington bar might be.
I hear you’re a descendent of Antoine Peychaud of Peychaud’s Bitters, the guy who supposedly invented the Sazerac. True?
In the ’90s my uncle gave me this very cursory family tree, and I ended up finding out that my great-great-grandmother’s name was Marie Louise Peychaud. [Marie Louise was a cousin of Antoine’s.] I sort of became an expert on Antoine. This really gave me the tour into cocktails and got me introduced to the people who run Tales of the Cocktail and the people who were putting together the Museum of the American Cocktail. It was really good timing.
And how did you get into Hemingway?
I’ve been a Hemingway buff since high school. For many years I would read Hemingway, and I would notice the drinks that were mentioned. In 1989 I read Islands in the Stream, and I noticed he was talking about a drink with fresh lime juice, coconut water, Angostura bitters, and gin. I was visiting my girlfriend at the time (now my wife)—her folks have a place down in Florida, and they had a coconut palm tree and a lime tree, and they had gin. I made the drink.
From that point on I just started collecting in my mind and my memory whenever I read a Hemingway book. You know, “Okay, The Sun Also Rises, what’s a Jack Rose?” And then I’d figure out how to make it. In 2008 I did a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail on the drinks of Ernest Hemingway and that made me think: Why not a book?
A little more than a year ago, Mark Kuller rather mysteriously announced his new venture—which I rather mysteriously made public in a series of weekend tweets. His third restaurant, Kuller said, would be a Southeast Asian place, and would join the bustling restaurant row of 14th Street, Northwest. Again partnering with chef Haidar Karoum, he would showcase street foods from Vietnam and Thailand in a casually stylish setting that would clearly establish the place as a sibling of Proof and Estadio, his two existing restaurants.
Too early for that, said Kuller, who, prior to opening Proof in 2007, had been a prominent Washington attorney, and long ago mastered the delicate art of withholding sensitive information until the time is propitious.
Well, yesterday Kuller decided the time was propitious.
The work-in-progress, scheduled for early summer, will be called Doi Moi.
Kuller, whose former law colleagues marveled at how fanatically prepared he was for cases, was ready for the inevitable first question—or rather, questions.
Is that dwa mwa?
“Doy Muuy,” Kuller says, acknowledging that the name is likely to be mangled, perhaps even by his eventual staff.
His hope, he says, is that it will lodge in the mind.
When Constantine Stavropoulos opened Tryst in Adams Morgan, there wasn’t a lot like it around here. Part restaurant, part bar, part coffee shop, part music venue—it was a hangout for beer and java nerds, but you didn’t have to be one to like it there. You could pop in for a latte on your way to work or settle in with your laptop and stay all day. Industry types shared space on the worn velvet couch with wonks powering through policy publications. There was a communal table made of rough-hewn wood long before communal tables made of rough-hewn wood were a thing.
Actress Angela Kinsey may not be a seafood fan on The Office--her stern character, Angela Martin, once instructed Andy against taking her anywhere with patios, vegetables, and fish--but in real life, the ocean-loving star wants to know all about the fin-fare she's consuming. We caught up with Kinsey this morning on the Hill, where she's taking a short break from life in Los Angeles to join Oceana and local chef-author-advocate Barton Seaver in a campaign against seafood fraud.
We're no strangers to edible artifice in Washington: When a restaurant serves "Maryland crabcakes" at a premium while using cheaper Venezuelan meat, that's seafood fraud (and a pretty widespread heist). At best, you and the local fishermen are getting ripped off. Worse, certain impostor products can make you sick. Ever felt queasy after downing a few orders of "white tuna" sushi? You may have eaten escolar, a less-expensive fish that certain restaurants swap out for tuna, knowingly and not. It's tasty in small doses, but in larger quantities you'll understand the nickname "Ex-Lax fish."