An early look inside Mike Isabella’s Bandolero


Bandolero, Mike Isabella's modern Mexican concept, is expected to open in late May. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

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.


The cemetery fencing is legit. Isabella purchased them used and had them refinished and sealed, so that they would still look rusty. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

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.


Bandolero's bar, design to recall cemetery tombstones, will eventually include 50 to 60 tequilas housed in wooden crates. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

“Everything is kind of scattered,” he says. “That’s what I want. I don’t want any uniformity.”


Bandolero decided to leave the painted brick as is, a reminder of Henderson’s hardware store, which once occupied the space. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

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 has purchased new equipment for the Bandolero kitchen, including a plancha, deck oven and a large-capacity Hobart mixer. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

“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.”


Crews have repaired the broken kitchen skylight in the former Hook space. Isabella plans to hang heat lamps from it. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

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.


Isabella has had work shirts designed for his crew, just like he did at Graffiato. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.

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