Acre 121

$$$$ ($15-$24)
Acre 121 photo

Editorial Review

Southern cookin' in Northwest
By Alex Baldinger
Jan. 6, 2011

When CommonWealth Gastropub closed its doors on Irving Street NW in early 2011, the small Columbia Heights dining scene lost one of its most complete denizens, a place with a well-executed menu, an above-average drinks list and an atmosphere conducive to groups, families or people-watching.

In steps Acre 121.

Gone is Jamie Leeds's pub concept: the Scotch eggs, the Sunday roasts and the cask ales. In its place comes a decidedly Southern bill of fare - spearheaded by longtime journeyman chef Michael Soper - that favors home-style, coastal Carolina staples and saucy, smoky barbecue.

"A lot of people just don't cook in this neighborhood," said Acre 121 director of operations Terry Cullen; he holds the same position at the neighboring Lou's City Bar. "If you cooked barbecue in a one-bedroom condo, your topcoat would always smell like barbecue."

Cullen knew longtime acquaintance Soper was looking to step into a new kitchen, and when Leeds decided to sell the space, everything needed to happen fast.

"The owners thought something with barbecue would be good, and Terry had mentioned something about doing some Southern or Carolina stuff," Soper said. "I said, 'You need me up there.' And he said, 'You're right.' I rolled up, put the menu together in a week, and we were ready to go."

Soper hails from Upstate New York, and his previous turns as chef have included time at Old Town's Union Street Public House and Southside 815, George Starke's Head Hog BBQ and the former Soper's on M, which served beef carpaccio and callaloo-stuffed shrimp to pre-Abramoff expense-account crowds. That's a long way from the beer-battered pickles, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes he's serving now, but the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef has been an admirer of Southern cuisine's indigenous flavors for the past 25 years.

Soper prepares all of Acre 121's condiments and sauces from scratch, from the ketchup (spiked with hot peppers and honey) and barbecue sauce to the sharp remoulade, laced with celery, chopped onion, green pepper, mustard and horseradish; it's good enough to eat with a fork. The same can be said for the smoked trout dip ($9), which offers a slightly more savory twist on traditional crab dip.

Entrees lean strongly toward pork, chicken and seafood, perhaps none more reverently than the Carleston Chicken ($18): barbecued chicken, slathered in a tangy-hot spice rub, shrimp and pork belly in a sherry butter sauce, served with velvety cheddar grits and greens.

Like all of Soper's barbecue, the chicken is dry-smoked with hickory chips. The pork cooks overnight and is served shredded with two sides ($14). Soper also smokes baby back ribs, which are the centerpiece of the BBQ Combo ($18) with smoked chicken thighs, house-ground Andouille sausage, beans, bleu cheese cole slaw and corn bread. Soper's method is a combination between "wet," sauce-heavy Carolina and Memphis styles. "It's a hybrid, that's what chefs do," he said. "There's no new ideas; it's how you tailor it to your situation."

Pescatarians can seek refuge in the Low-Country Fish and Chips ($15) or a Seafood Stew ($21). Cullen's cocktails list is heavy on the classics and unpretentious: The Presbyterian (bourbon, ginger ale and club soda on the rocks) is straightforward and refreshing, while the Greyhound Racer (Grey Goose vodka, grapefruit and sloe gin) is well balanced and not too sweet.

Beer drinkers will find 12 rotating draft lines and about 25 bottles and cans, and there's a definite bias toward smaller American labels: Abita, Goose Island, Sixpoint and Starr Hill all make multiple appearances. Budweiser and Michelob Ultra were added to the menu only after enough patrons asked for them. Canned beer is half-price during happy hour, Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., and Acre 121 hosts trivia night on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., which means rotating specials throughout the evening.

A major interior renovation took place after CommonWealth closed, and in addition to adding a distressed-wood floor and opening up the space, one of the most prominent new features was the addition of a stage, which hosts musical performances two or three nights a week. The lineup is predominantly bluegrass, folk and indie, but a recent Wednesday featured a National Symphony Orchestra strings ensemble.

Live classical music and barbecue on a work night? If that doesn't appeal to a neighborhood as young and diverse as Columbia Heights, it probably won't work anywhere.

"We're very invested in this neighborhood," Cullen said.

That can only be a good thing.