The restaurant debut I’m most eagerly anticipating this summer?
That’s easy—Garrison, which marks the return to the scene of Rob Weland. Weland is one of the best chefs in the city, but a name few outside the inner circle of the food world know.
Two years ago, he left Cork in pursuit of a place to call his own. Garrison, set to open on Barracks Row in mid to late summer, is that place, the chef’s first as owner.
Weland came to Washington to work at Poste, where he became the first chef in the city to create his own restaurant garden. His lusty, head-to-tail “Poste Roasts,” served communally at outdoor tables, turned dining out into a festive celebration.
But Weland has never garnered a lot of attention, owing perhaps to his self-effacing personality, but also, perhaps, to his unflashy style at the stove. At his best, he has the great gift of making the simple taste complex, and the complex look simple. I spoke to him this weekend, by phone, about his new, long-in-the-making venture.
I remember when you called me to tell me you were leaving Poste, and then when you were leaving Cork to look for your own place. I know you never imagined it would take this long. But I also know that you were determined to find, as you put it then, “the right situation.” You weren’t going to come back until you found that. And here you are, in your own neighborhood. Pretty funny, no?
Rob Weland: This just fell in our lap. I was a little hesitant at first. But I’ve seen the progression in the neighborhood. There’s some serious energy going on.
You’ve been gone—what, two years?
A little less than two, but yeah.
I’m sure that even as you were scouting places you were eating out, making the rounds. What do you see, now, coming back on the scene?
It’s been great. I love what’s happening in DC. I was pretty nervous when I was coming down from my New York ten years ago. Every year keeps getting better. Barracks Row alone.
What can you tell people about your style as a cook? Two years—that’s a long time to be gone in this culinary culture.
I’m just proud of my beliefs. Supporting local people and local farmers. And I try to stay true to them. I’m going to be working with Michael Protas, who has a CSA on the Hill, One Acre Farm. I’m not gonna have the ability to grow as much as I was able to at Poste, so this is important. Whatever Mike gives me, I’m gonna use. Menus are gonna change frequently, to reflect that. I couldn’t be happier to be opening in summer time, with this over-abundance of good stuff. It’s definitely my favorite time of the year as a cook.
What’s your aim in the beginning?
To execute well. There’s a lot of anxiety and pressure in the beginning, when you open a restaurant. We want to turn it up slow.
For ten years, you were one of the most under-the-radar chefs in the city, though I thought you were one of the best. How did you manage to keep so low a profile?
I love what I do and I just do it. I love cooking and I’m happy to be back cooking. There’s different paths now. I cooked in the south of France, in New York, I came down here. They’re moving a little too fast now.
Talk to me a little bit about the design of the place. What do you want it to convey?
I’m friends with Erin Mara of Mara Home, and she did the design for us. The design is simplistic, it’s meant to reflect the food. We’re not trying to be very complicated. We want it to be unpretentious. We haven’t spent a lot of money. Hopefully the focus is gonna be on the back of the house. Which is not to say it hasn’t cost a lot to transform Tash.
At Poste, you cooked in one vein—modern American, with influences from Italy and France and California. At Cork, the focus was on small plates that paired well with the wines. Will Garrison be a return to one or the other? Or both?
Well, they were both me, both those styles. I know that I definitely don’t want to do small plates. We want this to be a sit-down dinner kind of place. It’s not fine dining we’re shooting for. I want a neighborhood place but I want people to also to be able to sit down, and I have to be careful how I word this—I’m not gonna say I’m not gonna do small little crudos and vegetable plates, they’re going to be a big part of what we do. I guess I’m just old school.
I mean the whole grazing thing—it’s hard. You can lose focus. I want to try to course things properly. I think it’s a little overwhelming when you go to some place and it’s like a buffet. We want to steer people toward a very civilized dinner. We want them to feel like they can come back and be a part of this a couple times a week. I don’t want to rush people. We want them to have three or four courses they like. I’ve hired a very energetic young GM from BLT Steak who’s fantastic.
Tell me about the name. It’s clean and suggestive, and sounds different from what so many restaurants are doing right now. I mean, for one thing—no ampersand. No “Kitchen.” No “Bar.”
Thanks. Yeah, we’re two doors down from the Marine barracks, so we wanted to recognize that some way. And on my wife’s side of the family, it’s also a family name. So it just seemed right.
I think I wrote, years ago, that your pastas were as good, if not better, than those coming out of some of the top Italian kitchens in the city. Can we expect pastas on the menu at Garrison? And how many?
Yep, we’re just going to have fun with pastas. There’ll be tortellini at the beginning. But yeah, we want to definitely do some pasta work.
What about the ravioli you did at Poste—I still remember it: palm-sized, substantial, but light, too, with, if I’m remembering right, corn and stinging nettles?
That ravioli will definitely resurface. At Poste at the end we were grinding our own grain, and I’d definitely like to get back to that. We’ll fool around for fall. We’re going to be a little conservative opening up and once we’re there, have some fun.
What else can we expect? Poste became known, toward the end of your time there, for the head-to-tail chowing at a communal table you called “Poste Roasts.”
We’re going to fool around with some dry aged duck. I love bison so we’ll definitely do some bison hanger. Goat, roast goat—but not in the beginning. Porchetta, which I love making it and love eating it. There’ll be some kind of Sunday night roast.
Last chance to talk to the dining public. What do you want to say?
There’s no forgiveness in this business. I understand we have to execute from day one. That’s not the true reality, of course. But every day we want to get better. Hopefully our customers will grow with us.