Long before he became a restaurateur with a bulging portfolio, ranging from a bakery to a brewery, Neighborhood Restaurant Group co-owner Michael Babin had another serious pursuit: collecting vinyl. Listen to Babin talk about his favorite bands and long-playing records, and you could easily imagine him running Championship Vinyl instead of ChurchKey or Columbia Firehouse.
In fact, Babin admits he originally had a different name in mind for his latest restaurant, the Partisan, the full-service, evening-only operation connected in spirit and structure to Red Apron in Penn Quarter. "We almost named this place the B Side," says Babin. "But I vetoed it."
He nixed it because there is a generation (maybe two?) that might not understand the thrill of buying a 45-rpm single for the sole purpose of listening to the previously unreleased song on the flip side. To a certain aging demographic, the term "B side" doesn't automatically equate to filler material, the lesser half of a two-sided single. The term conjures up the delight of hunting down rare 45s to hear a great song available only on the B side of that vinyl doughnut, like Led Zeppelin's "Hey Hey What Can I Do" on the back of "Immigrant Song."
Babin suspected millennials wouldn't view The B Side with the same amplified nostalgia. So the Partisan it is. (Well, after NRG changed the name from the original Parts & Labor.) After a gestation period that seemed to last as long as the creation of the solar system, the Partisan finally debuts for dinner on Wednesday (complete with vinyl records spinning in the background, a concession to Babin's first love).
Regardless of its handle, the Partisan "is going to be a different kind of meat-centric restaurant," Babin says. "And hopefully one that really lends itself to a lot of exploration."
The menus (see below) are certainly designed for grazing, and not just the sushi-style charcuterie checklist that allows diners to select among the 30 cured meats. Similarly, the main menu is divided not by appetizers and entrees, but by animal species, with a range of dishes under each heading, from small bites to a platter covered with half a pig's head. Prices range from $5 to $75 (for the roasted pig's head).
More than any Red Apron outlet, the Partisan will allow chefs Nate Anda and Ed Witt to showcase the full breadth of their cured-and-aged meat operation, which has its own commissary near Union Market. Among the eye-openers are a 120-day dry-aged beef carpaccio (which has a surprising amount of moisture left in the muscle to accompany all the funk), a pork porterhouse steak (which Anda and Witt cook on its side to better render the fat cap) and their own take on bollito misto (complete with pickled tongue, smoked heart and pork bone marrow).
"I've been saving pig marrow for a year for this place to open," Anda says. "I have a lifetime supply, so when this becomes cool to have pig marrow, nobody else will have it because ... I own the market."
On the liquid side of the restaurant, the Partisan will feature the triple threat of Jeff Faile (cocktails), Brent Kroll (wine) and Greg Engert (beer). The wine list will feature 400 bottles as well as 25 labels on tap. Beer will eat up 17 taps, with an additional 50 brands available by bottle or can. Faile's cocktail menu will boast 10 drinks, plus another four spirits on tap. Faile and Anda are even combining talents to produce charcuterie-inspired cocktails and cocktail-inspired charcuterie.
What's more, Faile believes the Partisan will be the first bar in the District to have a tap dedicated to malört, the wormwood-based Swedish liqueur that has become synonymous with Chicago. "I'm kind of interested to see how that's going to work out," Faile says, laughing at his own decision to feature the bitter spirit. "I wanted to bring [a taste of] Chicago to D.C."
So what spirit pairs best with cured meats?
"Whiskey," Faile says without even a minor pause to ponder the question. His whiskey program will run at least 25-bottles strong.
"Rye whiskey is probably the best thing with the spice and the dryness of it," Faile says. "It just cleans the palate right out, and you're ready to go again. But again I'm biased. I fully admit that. Rye whiskey will go with anything."
Correction: The malört on tap at the Partisan is produced in France, not Chicago.
The Partisan, 709 D St. NW, opens its bar at 4 p.m. and is available for dinner at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 202-524-5322.