The exterior of Bandolero is so black that Spinal Tap references are inevitable: How much more black could Mike Isabella’s new modern Mexican restaurant be? The answer is none. None more black.
And that’s just the way the chef wants his forthcoming Day of the Dead-themed restaurant to look. (It’s scheduled for a late May opening.)
“If you look at all the other Mexican restaurants in the city, nothing is like this,” Isabella tells me during a hard-hat walk-through of the construction space on M Street in Georgetown.
When I remind Isabella that his former employer, Jose Andres, also has a Day of the Dead theme at Oyamel, the chef is quick to swat away my protest.
It does, Isabella concedes, “but it’s a very colorful one, with the orange ceilings and the colorful skeletons.”
“This is dark,” I acknowledge about Bandolero.
“This is dark — my style,” says Isabella, letting out one of his trademark maniacal laughs.
How dark will Bandolero be? Let’s start with the cemetery fencing.
Isabella found some used cemetery fencing from a company that sells the stuff and then had it scrubbed and sealed to look like . . . well, to look like the kind of fence that would haunt your dreams. In the upstairs dining room, Isabella plans to install animal skulls — think: the bony heads of coyotes, lambs, cows — behind the cemetery fencing and backlight them in red.
The arches over the first-floor bar have been designed to resemble tombstones, no doubt a helpful reminder not to imbibe every one of the 50 to 60 tequilas that Isabella plans to stock in wooden crates behind the bar. The chandeliers and other light fixtures — no candelabras, at least yet — are new but manufactured to look sort of old and gloomy.
“It’s going to be really dark and very candlelit,” the chef promises.
In fact, Isabella wants to create a kind of aesthetic dissonance with his three-level, 170-seat Bandolero. He rattles off a list of purposefully mismatched items: four different types of bar stools, three different types of dining room chairs, many different light fixtures, multiple colored menus and a random collection of couches and church pews for group seating.
“Everything is kind of scattered,” he says. “That’s what I want. I don’t want any uniformity.”
Even the ghost of a previous tenant will haunt the premises. After crews tore down the white-washed walls of the former fire-ravaged Hook, the Bandolero team decided they liked what they found: the logo covered walls of the old Henderson’s, a hardware store that Isabella believes dates back to the 1950s. The brick walls have been incorporated into the design of Bandolero, a playful dark twist on the greaser culture of the “Happy Days” era.
The only potential skeleton in the closet here is the owner of Bandolero: Pure Hospitality LLC, including former Hook owner Jonathan Umbel. According to court records, Umbel is being sued in D.C. Superior Court by the owner of the property at 3407 Connecticut Ave. NW, site of Umbel’s former Tackle Box and the spot of the recent Bandolero pop-up, which wrapped its run on May 5. (Attorneys for both sides in the case did not immediately return calls, but court documents show the landlord is asking for more than $12,000 a month in payments until the case is resolved.)
When contacted for comment, Umbel said the case was recently resolved even if court records don’t reflect it yet. The dispute, he says, arose when the landlord didn’t cough up the final $100,000 installment of Tackle Box’s build-out allotment in Cleveland Park. “They didn’t pay me,” says Umbel, “so I didn’t pay the rent.”
But ultimately, he adds, “everyone got what they were supposed to get.”
Umbel says that he carries only a small amount of debt into the new Bandolero project, even though the insurance claims on the Hook fire still have not been resolved. Umbel says the sale of his Cleveland Park Tackle Box and lease has helped him build out the new Bandolero.
“This restaurant is going to be a huge hit,” Umbel predicts.
Regardless of ownership structure, Isabella’s team says that it will maintain full control over “all aspects” of Bandolero. Isabella is considered a “chef-partner” in the deal with Pure Hospitality, but he, through a spokeswoman, declined to elaborate on how the partnership is structured. Umbel confirms that he will be “stepping away from the day-to-day operations” and that the partners have “selected people to handle our finances.”
Isabella is certainly doing his part, at the very least, to bury Hook’s past with the Bandolero build-out. Even Hook’s old kitchen has been revamped: Isabella has replaced the previous restaurant’s two walk-in coolers with one large one. He’s installed a new plancha, a deck oven (for enchiladas and nachos), a tilting skillet and a large Hobart mixer for the house-made masa dough, which will be pressed manually. At least 600 tortillas will be made by hand every day in the beginning, Isabella notes.
“Once we get open, we’re getting a [tortilla] machine. But those machines are like $12,000,” Isabella says. “You want to get open and get revenue like you do in all your restaurants.”
The prep side of the kitchen has been a focal point for the chef. Unlike the food at Graffiato, he says, Mexican food relies more on a large, well-organized prep kitchen. “It’s a major thing for this cuisine,” Isabella says. “A lot of stuff is precooked,” such as moles and braised meats.
Not that Isabella has any interest in labeling his food “Mexican.” He prefers the term “modern Mexican,” which better accommodates his wide-open, free-form approach to the cuisine, including lobster tacos served in (potentially) squid-ink tortillas or ahi tuna taquitos with soy and sambal.
“I don’t want to compete with all the classic Mexican restaurants,” Isabella says. “I want to do what I want to do and have fun with the food.”