777 I St., NW
Washington, DC 20536
Neighborhood: Penn Quarter/Chinatown
Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner, Sunday for brunch and dinner.
Nearby Metro Stops: Gallery Place-Chinatown
Price Range: Very expensive
Dress: Business Casual
Noise Level: Chatty
Empanadas; octopus causa; melted provolone; “gaucho” rib eye with chimichurri; Wagyu skirt steak; Del Campo chorizo; fried yuca; stewed canary beans; charred cauliflower; passionfruit cheesecake; tres leches “twinkies.”
The first thing that hits you when you walk into Del Campo isn’t the hip-shaking soundtrack. Nor is it the newly renovated dining room, which has turned what was once the clinical, steely PS 7’s into an elegant, mocha-toned place in which you’d actually like to spend time. No, the thing that hits you most powerfully is the air, filled with a lingering smokiness of the best kind—an applewood-fired grill.
The smoke is a bit of a shtick here: On each of my visits, servers boasted that nearly everything on the menu—from the charred pineapple wedge perched on a rum cocktail to the olive oil poured with the bread basket—had touched the grill in some way or had been smoked. In most cases, save for that olive oil, whose flavor gets obliterated, that’s a good thing. The kitchen uses its smoke judiciously and doesn’t rely on it the way some cooks lean on butter or bacon.
Del Campo is the creation of Victor Albisu, who has plenty of pedigree when it comes to the meat side of a menu. Before this, he led the kitchen at the downtown DC law-firm hangout BLT Steak. He grew up in Falls Church, and his mother has run a South American butcher, most recently in Falls Church, for decades.
Albisu’s restaurant can feel very much like any backslapping DC steakhouse—on weeknights, tables are filled with big groups of suited guys delving into burgers (“Don’t tell my wife!”) and hulking chops. You may wonder if anyone there isn’t on his company’s dime.
But the place also takes much of its inspiration from Albisu’s mother’s home country, Peru. The pisco sour is one of the stars of the winning cocktail menu. Back in the kitchen, Albisu gets creative with ceviche and crudo, though the results are mixed: slices of barely grilled salmon ceviche make for a pretty plate, but the fish is overshadowed by a thick aïoli. Grilled-scallop ceviche with smoked sea urchin fared better. The portions of crudo are dainty, unlike just about everything else on the menu, much of which is meant for sharing.
Nice starters such as flaky, tender-crusted Wagyu-beef empanadas and a skillet of gooey provolone could make a table of four happy. So, too, an artful plate of grilled octopus—a riff on the layered Peruvian dish causa—which is finished with grilled avocado and a velvety purée of aji amarillo peppers and potatoes.
But really, the main reason to come is the beef. Cuts are smoked just enough to enhance, not overpower, their flavor, then grilled and served atop wood platters with halved heads of garlic and long shanks of bone marrow.
A thick rib eye from Maryland’s Pied-mont Ridge farm emerged with a beautifully seasoned crust and a spot-on medium-rare interior. Two could easily share it, especially if you throw in a side of the Del Campo chorizo, which is better and spicier than the menu’s other varieties, and a cup of classic chimichurri, the tangy oil-and-herb sauce that’s traditionally served with meats in South America. Luscious slices of Wagyu skirt steak were nearly as good, but a special of pulled pork topped with slivers of crispy pig skin tasted more like salt than anything else. On the side, look to skillets of charred cauliflower with salsa verde, hearty canary beans with chorizo, and crisp spears of yuca.
If you don’t want to share your meal with a table of friends (or coworkers), your best bet is the Peruvian-style half chicken, which features juicy meat, skin that’s been rubbed with duck fat, and a fiery chili purée. Less successful were a small bowl of seafood stew, with gritty clams sitting in a bland broth, and the chivito, a Uruguayan sandwich stacked so precariously high with meats, cheese, and a fried egg, it’s nearly impossible to eat.
At least it leaves room for dessert, in the form of a trio of tres leches “twinkies” with dabs of toasted marshmallow, or a light, brightly flavored passionfruit cheesecake. Even after you’ve sworn off another bite, you might find yourself digging into it for more.
Actually, you’ll likely do that with a lot of the food here.
This article appears in the July 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.