Can a neighborhood coffee shop become all things to all people? Pound the Hill is certainly giving it a go.
The one-time NoMa klatch relocated to Capitol Hill (621 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) last year and has been cautiously branching out ever since. Exotic java and invigorating juice drinks have since been joined by a growing roster of globe-spanning boutique wines. Lone specials have given way to gourmet offerings ranging from nostalgic sandwiches to daring culinary mashups.
“My partners and I have a big love for food from around the world,” co-owner Karl Johnson said of management’s commitment to constantly broadening patrons’ gustatory horizons.
That overarching mission came into much sharper focus last winter when chef Jonathan Taub joined the team.
Taub, who previously manned the burners at Station 4 (Southwest Waterfront) and neighboring Art and Soul, was tasked with launching the bistro concept that debuted this past February. In addition to developing a dinner program that is adventurous yet succinct — the summer carte features a dozen or so shareable plates and a handful of seasonally inspired mains — Taub diversified the lunch offerings and hired a new pasty chef to bolster the breakfast staples (crumbly Nutella scones, anyone?).
“I don’t think people realize what we have here yet,” Taub said.
He might be right.
During daylight hours, Pound the Hill perpetuates the “Central Perk” vibe.
Somnambulant professionals guzzle steaming cups of pedigreed brew before bounding out the door, their lifeblood officially renewed. Technovamps linger a little (OK, a lot) longer, unabashedly siphoning electricity — almost everyone camped out there during the day is tethered to multiple electronic devices — and free Wi-Fi.
Johnson loves all of his devoted customers but acknowledged that he is, in effect, serving two fairly different constituencies. He said the coffee/bakery operation does well during the day and attracts a good amount of regulars. The bistro appears to be pulling in an entirely different demographic, Johnson said, estimating that about 60 percent of the nascent dinner crowd are curious newcomers.
They are usually well-rewarded.
Cooking From Scratch
Taub, born and raised in Philadelphia, has been climbing the food service ranks since he was in high school. He mentioned studying at the elbows of cheflebrities Alain Ducasse and Masaharu Morimoto during his early years and has milked every subsequent restaurant job for all its creative worth.
The classically trained toque relished the opportunity to retool Pound the Hill’s cooking operation, even though it meant trading roomier digs for an all-electric, turn-around-and-you’ve-seen-it work space.
“The main problem with lunch is the size of our kitchen,” he said of the close quarters. Even so, Taub remains pleased by the rotating sandwiches and daily specials (ropa vieja, drunken noodles) that his crew turns out for midday guests.
“We cook from scratch,” Taub stressed, noting that he marinates some lunchmeats at least three days in advance.
He was also elated that chill seekers had recently slurped him dry of a fanciful blueberry “stew” accented by red wine, herb-laced farmer’s cheese and housemade cornbread.
“I was glad to see people devoured it … and were asking when I could make another batch,” Taub said.
The bistro, which is transitioning into full-on summer mode this week, dabbles in both style and substance.
A trio of cordon bleu croquettes gush molten gruyere, chicken and prosciutto when pierced, their savory insides complemented by squiggles of zesty Dijon mustard and dulcet bits of actual honeycomb.
Bite-sized mushroom tartes should be lovingly savored. A shimmering lobe of caramelized duxelles crowns a hollowed-out puff (buttery, paper-thin walls dissolve on contact with the tongue) shrouding a purse of creamy goat cheese. Lemon zest provides added punch.
Taub explained that the signature duck confit dish is rooted in traditional duck a l’orange. While pondering this Continental standard, it suddenly dawned on him that orange and chocolate make for incredible mouthfellows.
“It almost jumped out in front of me,” he said of the revelation that obliged him to marry marmalade-covered fowl with Valrhona chocolate.
“People love it,” he said.
The duck redux did raise a few eyebrows but fully romance. The poached duck was juicy and flavorful, while the accompanying arugula spiked with caramelized onion and sautéed garlic put standard greens to shame.
We could, however, have done without the bath in uber-tart orange glaze — particularly if it would make room for of the entrancing dark-chocolate-pistachio-hazelnut spread, which riffed off the savory meat masterfully.
A much-requested barbecue trio played around with offal and Asian sides. Brisket was big but dry, not so much shredding as peeling off like planks of pre-fab, fake-wood flooring. Glazed pork belly fared better, its skin broiled until crackling, while the underlying fatty tissue gently smooshed beneath probing tines. Deep-fried sweetbreads swim in a flour shell drizzled with a vinegar reduction.
Best in show goes to the grilled corn bread, which was a sweet and savory utility mop. Most puzzling? Asian-style mini-corn-peppers-onion slaw that would have made perfect sense — at the since shuttered Ba Bey.
Taub’s summer slate is set to include a tomato sampler (ceviche, tartare), a mussel dish, pineapple ravioli and an avant-garde seafood dish featuring experimental snow crab — glazed in eggless béarnaise sauce and subsequently bruleed — escorted by asparagus, melon and English peas.
The Hard Stuff
Johnson said co-owner Frank Rinaldi is handling the beverage program while they continue their search for a new sommelier. The existing offerings are well worth exploring.
Craft beer enthusiasts can indulge in a number of noteworthy pours, ranging from New Belgium’s now-ubiquitous Fat Tire to hometown brewery Chocolate City’s Cornerstone Copper Ale.
The wine list sticks with around two dozen smaller producers, split almost evenly between reds and whites.
The 2011 Christophe Thorigny Vouvray Sec was very refreshing, delivering swigs perfumed by lemon and peach. By contrast, the 2010 Monteviejo Festivio Torrontes pummels the senses with stone fruit (apricot, tangerine).
The 2009 Arrocal Tempranillo is aggressively fruity but amazingly food-friendly; a quick sniff looses a flood of ripe red and black fruit including currants and a touch of raisin. That first gulp is slick but determined, bombarding the palate with acid and lip-curling tannins betwixt flashes of plum and blackberries.
Our current favorite is the 2008 Chateaux Vieux Chevrol Lalande-de-Pomerol. The well-structured stunner smells of cinnamon, oak and black fruit and then coats the gullet in vanilla, spice and robust red fruit.