Southern Efficiency

Bar
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Editorial Review


By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Meats are on the marquee, but seafood steals the show

Meats are on the marquee, but seafood steals the show
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Turf with a Latin slant is the theme at Richard Sandoval’s latest addition to the dining scene, Toro Toro. That’s where this carnivore recently sliced into a grilled rib--eye steak while facing (huh?) a wall of antelope skulls. But surf is what I’m filling up on ---- and enjoying immensely ---- in the prolific restaurateur’s beige--brown dining room across from Franklin Square on a recent spring night.

Ruby--colored cubes of raw tuna combine with soft bites of sweet potato and crisp quinoa to add up to a seviche of distinction. A slick of fiery cilantro sauce and a loose cake of corn and fingerling potatoes impress me as much as the rope of tender grilled octopus they accompany. Chewy, button--size arepas are topped with creamy seafood: minced prawns, scallops and calamari. The sleeper of the many small plates is a dip of smoked swordfish offered with crisp plantain chips for scooping. Going, going, gone.

Our bubbly server is quick to rate every dish we order (“one of my favorites!”) ---- behavior that would be annoying if the cooking didn’t live up to her enthusiasm. I bite when she advocates for a main course of Chilean sea bass (“the best I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve had a lot”) and I break into an appreciative smile when the silken fish shows up, fetchingly framed with mussels, shrimp and squid and delicious to boot. A turmeric--tinted broth is good to the last spoonful.

The nonperformers of the night? That $41 steak, which lacks beefy succulence, and a companion of dull creamed spinach topped with a stiff web of Parmesan.

Toro Toro wants to be known for its orgy of seven grilled meats, served until you cry “uncle,” and priced at $79 per person, side dishes included. A catch: The Brazilian--style feast has to be ordered by everyone at the table, and tonight, not everyone at the table is game.

Chances are good you know of Sandoval or the New York--based chef’s work around the District: Zengo, Masa 14, El Centro D.F. and Ambar are all his. For Toro Toro, he assigned Stephen Hartzell , 40, the former chef de cuisine at El Centro, to fill that role.

The music drifting from the orange glow of the basement comes from the restaurant’s lounge. Toro Toro is a smart space that would be more comfortable if the tables for two were large enough to accommodate even a standard order and the chairs had more--supportive backs.

I’ll type it again: Restaurants would be doing customers a huge favor if they auditioned more details before adding them to their menu. Furniture included.

The culinary charms of the South, explored efficiently
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Pimento cheese. Shot of Belle Meade. And the Tennessee bourbon goes down, not unpleasantly, like liquid splinters of wood.

If you haven’t guessed by now where I am, here’s another clue: The watering hole’s neighbors are the sherry-- and ham--minded Mockingbird Hill and oyster--oriented Eat the Rich. Both bars are the creation of Derek Brown, who added another reason to visit their block in Shaw in December with Southern Efficiency, a toast to some of the treasures below the Mason--Dixon line.

That means scores of brown spirits (“a neatly tailored list,” Brown calls it) behind the bar. A handful of cocktails are pre--made and dispensed in single--serving Mason jars. “Like opening a beer,” says a bartender as he reaches into a refrigerator and pulls out a Stone Fence, a blend of Old Overholt rye, apple cider and bitters. Imagine an apple juice box for adults.

Chef Julien Shapiro chops and stirs in a kitchen that produces the food for all three eateries. Consequently, he says, his menu items for Southern Efficiency had to be practical, easy, doable in batches ---- “as efficient as possible” while also “representing an element of the South,” but not necessarily the obvious icons.

So, no fried chicken. Instead, Shapiro offers the less--seen Country Captain, tender curried chicken bedded on Carolina Gold rice, a one--dish supper made sweet with raisins, crisp with almonds and fragrant with cardamom. The chef also makes a terrific peanut soup, a beige bowl that rallies the taste buds with roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions and a duel between sherry vinegar and sour cream in most spoonfuls. The heartiest of the lot is the lamb--rich Hoppin’ Gilson, a play on Hoppin’ John, in which black--eyed peas sub for the traditional rice. It was the perfect quilt during the Winter That Wouldn’t End.

A pulled pork sandwich reminds me I haven’t left Washington; cheers for the grilled potato roll, but where’s the tang in the shredded meat?

Like the food, the restaurant’s interior brings the South to mind without resorting to cliches. Warming up the entry is a display of pale green seltzer bottles, and ringing the bar are stools made from tractor seats.

“We wanted to evoke the lunch counters and diners” of the South while avoiding “Disney reproductions,” says Brown.

Does he have another joint in his future? The entrepreneur swears this is his last opening for a while, unless, he teases, he can carve out a two--seater amid the three bars.

Southern Efficiency, which opened in mid-December in Shaw, bills itself as a Southern-inspired restaurant and whiskey bar. Derek Brown, who also owns the neighboring Eat the Rich and Mockingbird Hill, hopes he confounds your expectations of what, exactly, a Southern restaurant and bar can be.

The mission, he says, is to "go beyond a caricature of the South. People think they know Southern food, like shrimp and grits, but that's not what people eat at home, or at lunch counters. … There are so many different kinds of food coming out of the South, whether you're in Oxford, Miss., or Atlanta. We're picking and choosing what we like." So yes, you'll find fried catfish and bourbon balls, but also peanut soup and a chocolate mayonnaise cake, "using Duke's [Mayonnaise], of course."

There are no Garden & Gun-worthy photos of back roads, hunting dogs or aging whiskey barrels framed on the wall. You won't find weathered "Bar-B-Q" or "Welcome to Natchez" signs, either. "We didn't want you to come in and say, 'Oh, this is the South,'" Brown explains. The clues are more subtle: The wall of soda siphons, since soda is such an important Southern product. The barstools made from old tractor seats. The slightly barrel-vaulted ceiling, to make it look more like the lunch counters Brown visited in the Carolinas, which provided the inspiration for restaurant.

And then there's the liquid gold on the shelves behind the bar: Around 30 different varieties of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Small-batch fiends can sample Buffalo Trace's single-oak project bottles or Wild Turkey's rye-and-bourbon blend Forgiven, but there's also Johnny Drum, Willett Pot Still and Four Roses. The list is small but well curated, and while Brown expects it to grow steadily, "We're a whiskey bar, not a whiskey library," like the massive collections at Jack Rose or Bourbon.

Likewise, the cocktail menu is short and sweet, and "we favor brown and stirred," Brown says, meaning that Manhattan and Sazerac fans will be happier than those who favor a gin and tonic. "When someone comes in, they can just get a drink, or they can talk to the bartender and ask about the differences between small-batch whiskeys." Those who want to know more about bourbon will be able to take specialized classes on Saturdays, which will include plenty of tastings and cost $45.

As at Southern Efficiency's sister bars, there are cocktails on tap, starting with a whiskey and smoked cola, developed by Southern Efficiency bar manager and bartender J.P. Fetherston. The menu will also offer jarred cocktails – from Mason jars, of course – such as the cider-and-whiskey Stone Fence. Even the beers lean Southern, with Terrapin and Full Steam featured on the taps; Brown also promises a focus on Virginia hard ciders.

Beyond the food and drink, "all my places have a musical identity," Brown says. "Joe Strummer and the Clash for Mockingbird Hill, Lemmy [Kilmister of Motorhead] for Eat the Rich. This one is Merle Haggard." He spent time assembling a playlist of old-school country and current alt-country favorites that ranges "from Merle to Ryan Adams to Hank Williams III."

With the opening of Southern Efficiency, Brown's trio of Seventh Street bars is complete, and perfect for a mini-Shaw bar crawl. My suggested itinerary: Oysters and sparkling wine at Eat the Rich, then feasting on ham and sherry at Mockingbird Hill, followed by a nightcap of whiskey and dessert at Southern Efficiency.

-- Fritz Hahn (Dec. 18, 2013)