Where to Dine in 2014
Notable debuts include locavore delicacies, gourmet tacos and a popular steak house’s second location
The calendar just recently turned, but already a new crop of restaurants has started to spring up.
Here’s a trio of upstarts vying for your dining dollars in the new year.
Executive Chef/Founder John Mooney has led a full life since decamping from D.C. in the early ’90s. But the now-world-traveled toque said he was excited about returning to the nation’s capital specifically to become a part of the food-friendly community fostered by Union Market.
“I like the history of it,” he said of the refurbished shopping hub.
Bidwell, which opened on Jan. 9, is a “sister restaurant” to New York’s Bell Book & Candle — and the nearly copycat menu reflects just how close these siblings appear to be.
Bidwell’s opening carte looks to be a mirror image of dishes previously featured up north, save for a handful of NYC staples, such as smoked chicken wings, seared duck breast, that haven’t (yet) transferred. Meanwhile, a trio of oyster, mussel and escargot selections may be Bidwell-specific additions.
Mooney pitched lobster tacos (“Never come off the menu. A crowd pleaser”), fried deviled eggs and grilled lamb chops (drizzled with lemon and olive oil) as perennial favorites. He also wholly endorsed a signature patty melt featuring locally raised Black Angus beef covered in aged cheddar and “old-school” Thousand Island dressing cribbed from a 1920s cookbook (Mooney mines estate sales for culinary inspiration), all sandwiched between seeded New York rye.
A rooftop garden is scheduled to be planted this March. In the meantime, Mooney is weaving proteins from Harvey’s Market and dairy from Righteous Cheese into his opening line-up. A Bidwell spokeswoman said regular lunch service is expected to begin Jan. 21.
Bidwell: 1309 Fifth St. NE; 202-547-0172; unionmarketdc.com/market/artisans/bidwell. Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, and brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Brothers Ian and Eric Hilton, the hospitality duo who’ve skippered projects ranging from New American(ish) Chez Billy to the British-themed Brixton, have set their sights on warmer latitudes with El Rey.
According to Ian, Eric spent a good deal of time in the cantinas of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and always dreamed of recreating those experiences — a fantasy that’s now come to fruition after nearly two and a half years of planning. The pair plotted a course that involved recycled shipping containers, a glass-enclosed retractable roof and, of course, tasty nibbles from south of the border.
Executive chef Jorge Pimentel, who most recently manned the burners at the Hilton-owned Satellite Room, was tasked with creating the street-foodie menu. Ahead of the opening on Jan. 10, Ian envisioned fielding as many as nine taco selections, including multiple options for pork (al pastor, carnitas, chicharron) and seafood (fish, shrimp-squid medley), as well as a daily special. That roster has already been cut nearly in half.
“There were a few too many tacos on the menu,” a server said of the chaotic scene in the kitchen during opening weekend, hinting that the adobo chicken tacos would probably resurface in the near future.
The remaining tacos are compact (three to four bites, tops) but generously filled. The carnitas version features shredded pork confit freshened by cilantro and radish slices, while grilled fish swims in a zesty chipotle aioli.
Brendan Murphy, the beverage guru who helped put The Gibson on the map, has conjured up a few thirst-quenchers for El Rey. An early favorite is the National Bohemian-fueled michelada, a bubbly blend of cheap beer, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce and lime that is muy bueno.
El Rey: 919 U St. NW; 202-506-6418; elreydc.com. Average entrée: under $12 ($). Open for dinner and late-night dining daily.
Mark Bucher said people tried to lure him over to the burgeoning Yards Park complex. But the seasoned restaurateur held strong to his desire to put down roots in the tightly knit and pedestrian-friendly Capitol Hill community.
“We’ve been looking at Barracks Row for over two years,” he estimated.
His patience will finally pay off on Jan. 20, with the debut of his second Medium Rare restaurant.
Bucher said the renovations, which began back in October, were designed to replicate the look (exposed brick, blonde woods) and feel (paper-lined tables, modern rock on the house stereo) of the flagship property in Cleveland Park. “It will probably be unrecognizable to those who came into Fusion Grill,” he said of the months-long transformation.
As he’s been doing for the past three years on Connecticut Avenue, Bucher has cut out the guesswork of what’s for dinner.
“We only do one thing,” he said of a deliberately Spartan menu centered on cooked-to-order top sirloin cap steaks and house-made fries.
The prix-fixe dinner menu ($19.75 per person) includes a tin of crusty bread accompanied by sea salt-speckled butter, a mixed green salad tossed in vinegary dressing, seared steak topped with signature gravy and crispy shoe-string spuds. Each order is split into two roughly 5-ounce servings of the hearty beef (moderately tender, with a pleasant chew), resulting in an automatic “refill” of meat and potatoes as soon as diners polish off the opening salvo.
Mountainous desserts are farmed out to local bakers, running the gamut from uber-rich cakes (a six-layer carrot cake was incredibly moist and studded with raisins and nuts) to a la mode pies, while brunch opens things up with egg dishes and French toast.
The Barracks Row location is scheduled to conduct its final training sessions (“friends and family service”) Friday through Sunday.
Medium Rare: 515 Eighth St. SE; 202-601-7136; mediumrarerestaurant.com. Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for dinner daily, brunch Sunday.