Fledgling restaurants, particularly those replacing epicurean touchstones such as the late Mendocino Grille, must often strike a delicate balance between courting the next wave of regulars and appeasing the devout still lamenting what once was.
The tastemakers behind Unum, Georgetown's latest gem, make it look downright easy.
The restaurant (2917 M St. NW) was founded in late January by newly minted restaurateurs Phillip Blane and his wife, Laura Schiller. While her beaming countenance will be familiar to guests she's assisted in Unum's cave-like main dining room, most of our readers probably know Schiller best from her "day job" as chief of staff for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Blane might be a little harder to identify, given that the ambitious chef presides over the back of the house, juggling everything from sweet and savory cooking duties to inventory and ordering.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
Blane has paid his dues in high-profile kitchens around the area, learning the lay of the hospitality land during his days as opening chef of the Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant on Virginia's Eastern Shore before migrating north to man the burners at presidential favorite Equinox.
These days, he's calling the shots - and marveling at the audience he attracts night after hectic night.
"You certainly never know who's going to come through the front door," Blane said of the all-embracing spot he created specifically to celebrate the melting pot culture he so admires about D.C. (The name Unum was inspired by the motto "e pluribus unum," Latin for "out of many, one.")
Though separated from the street by only a glass-enclosed vestibule, the tony yet intimate interior seems miles away from the more opulent culinary haunts and collegiate dives that have long reigned over the heavily trafficked main drag.
Blane et al. managed to carve out three zones within the tightly knit expanse: a stone-walled main dining room dominated by a softly lit, burning bush-like feature emblazoned at the far end; a recessed cubby that takes privacy seekers off display but requires scooching together on a communal banquette; and a modest bar/lounge boasting a single, window-side table.
Those who choose to linger at the bar are welcome to avail themselves of the carefully curated library near the front. The built-in book rack celebrates those who contributed to the culinary arts (familiar titles included Barton Seaver's "For Cod and Country," Bill Buford's "Heat," and Gabrielle Hamilton's "Blood, Bones & Butter") as well as accomplished storytellers (we spotted the best works of Jonathan Franzen, Shel Silverstein and Dave Eggers on display).
More Sea Than Stockyard
Back at the tables, overly chatty neighbors provide all the entertainment anyone could ever need.
"I've known Doug since the '92 campaign," a bombastic Hill-staffer-turned-lobbyist announced before regaling tablemates (and anyone within earshot) with tales of the good old days.
The snippets we caught of how the well-heeled traveler currently spends his time - summering in the Hamptons, hauling home $37,000 in cash from a particularly fruitful Vegas trip - led us to believe the former public servant is in no rush to rejoin the government payroll.
"I had a salad at lunch. That was healthy. I'll have the hanger steak, rare," an unchained carnivore loudly rationalized at his table another night.
While every diner is certainly welcome to indulge in the red meat of his or her choosing - Unum has consistently offered a steak dish alongside its signature gourmet burger since opening - the menu tilts more toward the sea than the stockyard. (Though we definitely love the burger with mouthwatering caramelized onions and cheddar.)
Blane is proud of Unum's "True Blue" certification, a badge of honor bestowed only on restaurants that plate Maryland blue crabs. The crabs have an extra crispy soft shell, seasoned and breaded so that they taste reminiscent of fried chicken, brightened by bracing bites of apricot-green-tomato chutney. The crab cakes were less daring - rolled together mounds of binderless jumbo lump meat - on the whole adequate but dull, particularly when compared with the creamy-sweet corn salad by their side.
An oyster sampler had one freshly shucked and bathed in a tongue-teasing, brazenly vinegared Granny Smith apple mignonette, another poached into succulent glory and a fried specimen overshadowed by an overbearing tomato salsa.
Our favorite catch has to be the grilled branzino. The Mediterranean staple arrives dusted with pepper and anointed in lemon, the surrounding pureed celery root decorated with briny green olives and breathtaking mint-fennel slaw.
A lusty lamb shank escorted by deliciously tender Brussels sprouts is Blane's homage to an Indian colleague he cooked alongside in Memphis, Tenn. Blane said he fashioned his rub after hers, then filled in the corresponding blanks based on tradition (cilantro-mint chutney) and whimsy (pureed cauliflower studded with raisins and chopped cashews).
The bar staff strives to keep things just as interesting, searching out fresh finds for the 16 slots in the pressure-tight wine keeper.
When we went fishing for something a "little different," head barkeep Dmitry Popov returned with a generous pour of 2010 Trapiche Torrontes, promising us a cider-like experience. The Argentinean white delivered green apple in spades, hitting us right in the kisser with plenty of acid and residual sugar.
Popov is also credited with helping craft the establishment's signature libations, a collection of high test coolers ranging from the boozy Hemingway (rummy undercurrents ring of the tropics) to the citrusy Aviation (as if gin and Meyer lemons locked lips).
Blane is a big fan of all the herb-spiked potables, even though he's just fine unwinding with more lowbrow concoctions. "At the end of the night, I'm just happy to pour myself a beer," the time-crunched toque said.
And he's only making more work for himself.
"We're getting closer on brunch," he said. The promised morning fare is set to include French toast, house-made granola, custom waffles, assorted egg dishes, a smoked fish platter accompanied by house-made pickles as well as a few dinnertime carryovers, including the burger, branzino and crab cakes.