The last time Michael Soper put his name on a menu in Washington, it didn’t work out so well. It was in the late 1990s, and the veteran chef and consultant had rolled out perhaps his most ambitious project to date: Soper’s on M, a play for the expense-account set with a menu that combined conch fritters and callaloo-stuffed shrimp with beef carpaccio and salmon tartare.
The Post’s restaurant critic, Phyllis C. Richman, had mixed emotions about the place, scolding that you shouldn’t “squeeze salmon tartare out of a meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes-kind of chef.” Soper’s lasted about a year.
Next week, with the opening of Acre 121 in the former CommonWealth Gastropub space in Columbia Heights, Soper plans to redeem himself with a more modest menu that pulls together lowcountry cuisine and barbecue. “It may be more Eastern Shore than lowcountry,” Soper says, second-guessing his own menu.
In my years of writing about food and restaurants in Washington area, I had never spoken with Soper, which says something both about me (don’t go there) and about the chef. He’s the type of self-effacing kitchen leader who puts together solid concepts that, aside from the M Street flop, tend to withstand culinary trends and diner whims. His menus lean decidedly Southern, though more coastal perhaps and than deep south, and they have just enough cheffy spin to separate themselves from the cookie-cutter American restaurants and their love for the deep fryer.
Soper’s resume includes such restaurants as Union Street Public House, Southside 815 and King Street Blues, all in Old Town Alexandria. None of these places attract the pampered foodie types, of course, but they have all been around for years, consistently catering to a neighborhood clientele. “At one time, you couldn’t go to Alexandria without eating my food,” Soper says without an ounce of pretense.
At Acre 121, Soper has pulled together what sounds like a mouthwatering menu that includes pulled pork sliders (on brioche buns with bleu cheese cole slaw), a “Carpetbag Po’ Boy” (with sliced steak, fried oysters and remoulade sauce), a grilled shrimp BLT (with a fried green tomato, glazed pork belly and blue cheese slaw), and a “Lowcountry Fish and Chips” (beer-battered grouper with sweet potato fries).
So the latter dish is like Soper’s homage to the former tenant, the pub-centric CommonWealth, right?
“I wish I was that smart,” Soper responds. “I didn’t think of that. Not on purpose, but that’s OK.”
C’mon, how can you not like this guy?
Soper will be working for the Highland Restaurant Group, headed by Terry Cullen, the same guy responsible for Lou’s City Bar just down the way on Irving Street NW. Cullen says he’s covered the concrete floor with distressed wood, upgraded the bathrooms, knocked out the old private dining room, added new kitchen equipment and generally opened up the byzantine CommonWealth space. Oh, he’s added a small stage, too, for live music.
The bar program, Cullen says, will focus on the liquid that has served a number of new urban eateries well — microbrews. But Cullen plans to go one step further than some of his contemporaries; he doesn’t plan to sell any corporate American beers. Abita Light will be his light beer of choice. “You know what?” Cullen says when I press him on not catering to the Bud Light crowd, “I can’t always change it.”
Acre 121, incidentally, is derived from some sort of city “designation of Columbia Heights,” Cullen says. It wasn’t his idea. “For me, I would have named it Joe’s and Bill’s or something like that.”
Acre 121 at 1400 Irving St. NW is scheduled to open on Wednesday, June 29.