Legal troubles or not, chef Erik Bruner-Yang still has a new project to launch, and he'll be offering a preview of his forthcoming Asian street-food concept, Maketto, during a three-month takeover of the Hanoi House on 14th Street NW. The "residency" will start on Monday, July 15, and run until October, potentially just days before Maketto opens on H Street NE.
Less than 24 hours after I spoke to Bruner-Yang about his pop-up at Hanoi House, the Toki Underground chef and his new wife were allegedly involved in an early morning confrontation with Bruner-Yang's former girlfriend. He would end up pleading not guilty in D.C. Superior Court last week to assault and attempted threats; he and wife, Seda Nak (who pleaded not guilty to four charges), were also ordered to stay away from the ex's house.
The dust-up has already had one ripple effect for the chef: Two national sponsors of a July 11 preview of the Maketto residency have pulled out of the event, which is now cancelled. Could their withdrawal be an omen? Will the Maketto pop-up now be as much a referendum on Bruner-Yang as it is a sneak peek of the food that he and chef de cuisine, James Wozniuk, plan to serve at the Asian night-market-themed operation?
I've tried contacting Bruner-Yang several times for comment, but he's remaining mum, likely a gag imposed by his lawyer. All the quotes in this item came from my interview before the altercation.
The pop-up, or "residency" as the Maketto crew is calling it, "is a good way for us to kind of start experimenting with the menu to see how far we can push it,” Bruner-Yang said. "It’s a beautiful space to do a pop-up...And it’s summer. [Hanoi House] didn’t plan on selling a ton of soups, and this works out for everybody."
When we spoke, Bruner-Yang had just returned from his honeymoon in Cambodia (not a Dead Kennedys' song) and Taiwan, where he visited relatives, enjoyed some down time on a nearly deserted Cambodian island and conducted recon for potential Maketto dishes. Wozniuk is expected to return on Tuesday from his own Southeast Asian trip, in which he visited Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Bruner-Yang has about "15 to 20 dishes that I want to do," he said. "But I know when James gets back he’s going to have a different set of 15 or 20 dishes. So right now, all we’re really working on is mapping out the availability of product and then basing what we’ll cook on the availability.”
The family-style dinner menu will change regularly, based on ingredients and the chefs' own impulses. Those who snag a reservation will not place orders but will be served a set menu that the chefs create for the evening. (There will also be a rolling dim sum cart offering a la carte items.) Think of the approach as Bruner-Yang's homage to Little Serow, the intimate northeastern Thai restaurant from freshly minted Beard winner, Johnny Monis.
Monis "just does his own thing, and people accept it, you know?" Bruner-Yang said. "He doesn’t stray away from how he wants the flavors to be or the ingredients that he wants to use. I think that definitely inspired us to know that we could just do it the way we wanted to do it, food-wise."
Some dishes that could appear on the menu include somlah machou (there are numerous variations on that spelling), a Cambodian sour soup that can be built from chicken, beef or fish stock; Cambodian lok lak, which Bruner-Yang called a "shaky beef kind of thing"; and nom banh chok, a cold rice noodle dish with pounded fish and a green or yellow curry paste, the chef said.
“Basically, most of the conflict we’re having is, Will dinner be all Cambodian and Southeast Asian or is it going to be a hybrid of Chinese dishes and Cambodian dishes at the same time?" Bruner-Yang said. "I think that’s why we’re going to base the menu on availability. I pre-ordered a couple of whole pigs for the opening week, so it’s going to be based on what we can use the whole pig for.”
The residency is not only a preview of Maketto's menu, but also a test of how well Bruner-Yang can manage two restaurants. Toki, with its nightly wait for a seat, is already a well-oiled machine, the chef said, but he needs to see if it can remain that way while he focuses on Maketto, the food-and-retail collaboration with Will Sharp of the Durkl clothing line.
"I think that’s the million-dollar challenge: How do I keep both sets of investors happy?" Bruner-Yang said. "It’s good to get the practice now.”
As for the Maketto build-out, Bruner-Yang said it's "hard to tell" if construction is on schedule for an October opening. The rains have slowed crews.
“It feels like on site that we’re behind schedule a little bit because of the weather," the chef said. "But we’ve been building all the finishes at a different location. Once we get it all together, we’ll have a better idea.”
The Maketto residency is due to launch at 5 p.m. Monday, July 15, and run Mondays through Saturdays. Reservations are required and may be made via Hanoi House’s OpenTable at www.hanoihousedc.com. The meal will cost $30 per person and no accommodations can be made for dietary or allergy restrictions.