Photography by Todd Franson
Much buzz accompanied the opening of David Greggory late last spring. It is, after all, the handsome and stylish collaboration of two industry insiders with long track records here in Washington: David Hagedorn, formerly chef and owner of Trumpets, and Greggory Hill, for nine years chef at the popular Gabriel, where he revolutionized brunch and enticed diners to explore new Latin American cuisine.
Despite its unimaginatively merged name the restaurant shows ample inspiration when it comes to décor and cuisine. Hill is in command of the kitchen while Hagedorn does the baking and oversees the front of the house, staffed by a very able crew of young and attractive servers. By all appearances, the arrangement seems to be working out nicely.
The menu is best described as modern American with Middle Eastern and Latin influences. By now the wait staff is surely tired of being asked the meaning of "Appas," a heading invented to designate American tapas. Don't look for this term to catch fire in the industry, although the offerings under it are not as easily dismissed.
Smoked chicken plantain empanadas, crispy and bursting with flavor, evoke Chef Hill's Latin fascination. The hint of hot pepper doesn't mask the lovely, smoky notes of the poultry. Moroccan shrimp, skewered on small sticks and enlivened with harissa, a hot sauce concocted from a variety of Middle Eastern spices, are notable. Carefully grilled to avoid drying out the shrimp, the only thing I found disappointing was the quantity.
Grouped under the more traditional heading of appetizers are some delectable offerings, although the distinction between these and the t-less tapas remains a mystery. My favorite is the Iroquois corn "cake" with avocado, roasted corn "smish" and oven-dried tomato. Circular in shape and stacked in layers (think savory napoleon), this subtle masterpiece delights with its variety of textures and flavors. An accomplished pizza, crisped in a wood-burning oven and imaginatively topped is worth the wait. Applewood smoked bacon, onions, mushrooms, Spanish pesto and Manchego -- Spain's famous sheep's milk cheese, boasting a full, mellow flavor -- make this one of the best I've tasted recently.
Before getting to main courses, a few items bunched under "Halvables" are worth noting. Each is available as a half or full portion, with the full serving being a well-sized main course. Mussels steamed with coconut milk, Thai chili paste, lemon grass and limejuice come arrayed around a stack of linguine and topped with fennel chips. Half is an ample appetizer, but you'll probably prefer a full order of jumbo lump crab cakes, which are far better.
You don't see rabbit on many menus in this city, which makes the spring rabbit cassoulet a fine and unexpected offering. While I find myself longing for the gamy taste of the wild rabbits of my youth, this is no poor substitute. A braised leg and seared serrano-wrapped loin on fava beans, pearl onions and carrots with citrus jus certainly hits its mark.
Grilled pork chop with maple dijon glaze is remarkable for its tenderness and flavor. And while the braised greens with applewood smoked bacon (also available as a side dish) is fabulous, the five-cheese macaroni is dry and disappointing.
Grilled salmon, rubbed with garam masala, a blend of dry roasted spices from India, is a welcome change from the bare or usually overly-sauced versions of this rich and healthful fish. Curried spinach and a cucumber/carrot riata are the perfect accompaniments to this succulent dish.
Chef Hill's own blend of spices is rubbed on lamb loin before grilling and served with a pomegranate essence with Moroccan-spiced pilaf of grains, apricots, pine nuts and baby artichokes for what I view as the ultimate carnivore's selection on the menu. This is lamb at its finest.
Like the rest of the menu, the desserts have their own cutesy categories -- "Chocolate" and "Not Chocolate," for instance. With a name like "Cow-over-the Moonpie Goes Bananas," you expect not only dessert but over-produced entertainment, and this dish doesn't disappoint. While the moonpie is certainly the chocolatey-rich treat you expect, the big surprise is the accompanying banana sorbet, which couldn't be finer.
A cobbler of summer fruit, baked and served in an iron skillet and topped with vanilla bean ice cream is exquisite and large enough to share, as are most of the dessert creations.
In this post-The Restaurant era, it's harder to dine out without thinking of all the behind the scenes intrigue and machinations that transpire in eateries. While the series was enormously entertaining, at least for people on the edges of the industry, it has likely given viewers a whole new set of skills in judging the dining experience. One now tends to notice the little things more -- the flirtatious demeanor of the staff, the courtesy (or lack thereof), the little touches that bring a smile, and not least, the temperature of the food. David Greggory is doing a lot of things right, and I suppose we should expect no less with two seasoned veterans at the helm. With more time, this now very good restaurant may become great.