Not Quite Dipped in Amber, the Monocle Drips Nostalgia
“I know the three of us are very important people …” a 20-something Hill climber (unironically?) said to his dining companions as the trio emerged from what must have been an ego-boosting repast at the historical center of the Capitol Hill dining-verse, the fabled Monocle at 107 D St. NE.
As it approaches its blue sapphire anniversary (65 years), the uniquely positioned restaurant continues to cater to its built-in constituency — House and Senate lawmakers — as well as those who covet that (power, access, capital) which they do not (yet) possess.
Nearly every table within the classically appointed main dining room is dominated by bombastic strategy sessions. “Once the Senate reverts to Republican control, bam!, he’s the chairman,” one lobbyist assured a worried client one night.
“We don’t give ’em a gun. We give them the ammunition!” a different influence peddler rationalized on another.
“It’s a tea party thing,” one poll watcher warned.
“I don’t really care who wins,” fired back his thoroughly disinterested companion.
An unabashed self-promoter did her best to drops hints she might be ready to move along — “Every bill I’ve ever worked on now has a public law number attached to it,” she volunteered — between nibbles of steak salad.
And, of course, there are those magical evenings when frazzled staffers pop by to drown their sorrows and dump on former colleagues who’ve left Congress in the rear view.
Man: “What’s he doing now?”
Woman: “I think he’s going to Venable.”
Owner John Valanos wouldn’t have it any other way. The second-generation restaurateur said he’s enjoyed the family-owned front seat to history for going on 30 years. (Constantine G. Valanos, John’s father and founder of the Monocle, died in 2012.)
Per Valanos, one of the restaurant’s longest running traditions — displaying autographed headshots of D.C. powerbrokers — remains alive and well. He said the family has amassed more than 1,000 of the personalized photos over the past half-century, a collection that is spread out between the restaurant (300 to 400 adorn the walls today), Valanos’ home, his parent’s domicile and a separate storage facility.
“We rotate a few. Just because there’s new members who come in, and we’d like them to become regulars, of course,” Valanos said of the carefully curated images that peer at diners from every corner of the establishment.
Then again, photos are no substitute for the real thing.
“If you see a bunch of SUVs parked out front, that’s a night to come in,” he said of the telltale sign a D.C. celebrity is likely mucking about.
The restaurant claims regulars from both sides of the aisle, and has even attracted admirers from other branches of government. “I mean, the speaker still comes regularly,” Valanos said of the chance of bumping into Ohio Republican John A. Boehner on any given night.
Retiring Rep. John D. Dingell — “He’s the only member currently in Congress who was here when we first opened,” Valanos calculated — is presumably no stranger. Valanos said the dean of the Michigan delegation stopped by not too long ago to dine with a goddaughter.
Valanos estimated that Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, is typically good for at least one visit a week when Congress is in session, and he said that former Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., practically lived there during his time in D.C.
Legions of elected officials can’t be wrong, right?
Depends on what one elects to order.
Valanos said classically trained chef Hector Toyos, a veteran of long-since shuttered District eateries La Brasserie (French) and Tiberio (Italian), has been at the helm of The Monocle for nearly 15 years. During his tenure, Toyos has tinkered at the margins — experimenting with house-made sauces, introducing new elements (such as a rocket salad layered with grilled onions, roasted red pepper reduction and fresh crab) — but remains largely loyal to the Continental style customers have come to expect.
The menu remains married to the concept of meat and potatoes. Some of the priciest entrees are a 20-ounce rib-eye ($42) adorned with Toyos’ custom maître ‘d butter (spiked with jalapenos), a 14-ounce sirloin ($38) typically escorted by scalloped potatoes and steamed vegetables, and grilled lamb chops ($34) accented with balsamic vinegar.
Seafood selections run the gamut (smoked salmon carpaccio, roast branzino bathed in champagne sauce), though not all turn out as swimmingly as others.
A portion of grilled shrimp, sporting the faintest hint of black pepper, was unable to liven up a surrounding mound of bland, mashed white beans.
The crab meat imperial summons a tower forged from curly micro greens spritzed with olive oil (base), meaty chunks of buttery avocado (middle) and sweet, shredded crab studded with zesty capers (top). A ring of chive oil circles the dish, while complementary crushed red pepper flakes provide discretionary heat.
Signature onion rings were many things: sparingly breaded, expertly seasoned (prominent salt crystals lit up my taste buds) and generously proportioned. But crispy they were not; the pile of limp rounds appeared to be doing an impression of onion hash rather than shooting for the role of crunchy star.
The flagship burger sounds like just another beef bomb. But the execution made believers out of us all. “Could somebody please tell Timothy Dean how to do this?” one companion, who’s evidently had it with the hit-or-miss meals at neighboring TD Burger, pleaded after biting into Toyos’ satisfying interpretation.
The reliably solid offering boasts a cooked-to-order patty devoid of fillers, bolstered by a savory mass of sautéed peppers and onions, velvety slices of melted Swiss and a smear of zesty aioli tucked beneath the bottom bun.
Broiled salmon should have been thrown back. The retro preparation produced a soggy filet (where art thou, crispy skin?) rolled in black pepper pods and left to drown in an oaky chardonnay reduction. The underlying fish was adequately tender, but looked terribly abused; there were unseemly grey spots on the underside that suggested high heat had done its worst, while the top bore an eerie pallor rather than the healthy pink hue of a flash-seared specimen. Sautéed leeks (cooked until translucent), attempted to cut through the oppressive wine sauce, but the pleasantly bitter warriors simply could not win this war.
A squat but wide slice of tart lemon pie curled our lips back up into a smile. The lightly chilled and expressly citrusy custard is spooned into a crumbly graham cracker crust; dulcet liquefied berries complement the pungent pudding-like production.
“Institutions are more powerful than man,” reads one of the political platitudes — this particular one, courtesy of Karl Marx — inscribed in gold leaf along the ceiling of the main dining room.
As Valanos well knows, Capitol Hill political players come and go like clockwork.
His family restaurant?
That’s here to stay.
The Monocle: 107 D St. NE; 202-546-4488; themonocle.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday.