A dining room so loud it may wake the dead
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, August 26, 2012
There's some good food flowing from the kitchen at Bandolero in Georgetown. But I advise you to bring blinders and cotton balls when you visit the buzzy new sibling to Graffiato in Chinatown.
The blinders are to shield you from one of the grimmest restaurants to open in years. A dropped black ceiling, cemetery fencing, dangling chains in the bar, skulls resting on shelves and eerie red sconces suggest the Addams Family’s dining room. While the interior is less dim than when it started accepting diners in May, Bandolero (formerly Hook) remains a black hole.
Day of the Dead I can appreciate. Year of the Dead is pushing it.
The cotton is to stuff in your ears. I’m used to being blasted by music in this age of concrete-paved dining rooms, but Bandolero ups the volume to a degree that veers between annoying and obnoxious, escalating to potentially harmful. Normal conversation is about 60 decibels; the noise at Bandolero is comparable to a power mower.
Happy grazing, everyone!
Bandolero is the creation of Mike Isabella, the local “Top Chef” contestant who made an overnight sensation out of Graffiato. Servers at both restaurants will tell you the menus are “inspired by” Mexico and Italy, respectively, rather than committed to the flavors and techniques of those countries. Isabella proved himself at Zaytinya, the Mediterranean small plates behemoth in Penn Quarter. For Bandolero, he recruited Zaytinya colleague Juan Rivera, who also goes by the name Tony Starr, to be chef de cuisine.
This is the part of the critique where I’m apt to repeat the servers’ spiel about how the menu is designed for sharing and blah, blah, blah, but honestly, I can’t quote anyone exactly because all I remember in three visits is my trying to read lips. You know, because NO ONE CAN HEAR HERE?
The guacamole is fine, but unlike its chief competitors, it is mashed away from the table, which takes away part of the fun of ordering guacamole. The better dip is called sikil pak, a vibrant paste of pumpkin seeds, orange zest, cilantro and more that shows up with thick masa chips and warm pork rinds, the latter so light you wonder how they stay in the basket.
The playbill is devoted as much to liquids as to solids. My rigorous research has yielded pisco sours as good as any I’ve had in Peru and a mezcal- and Campari-fueled El Capo that aims to please those who like their libations on the bitter side. As you might expect, tequila gets a starring role among the selections. If you’re a hot-head like me, ask for the margarita called Casa en Fuego, pretty in pink (from strawberries) but with deceptive fire power (from habanero-steeped tequila).
Come to think of it, anything starting with a “t” is worth investigating, starting with a taquito, the most intriguing of which finds a pinch of blue crab salad, pulsing with red curry and rich with coconut milk, on a crisp blue corn base. Tacos fill out the middle of the menu. They include cumin-spiked marinated skirt steak with creamy refried beans, lobster bites with corn and basil (on a disc tinted black with squid ink), and smoky-from-the-grill mushrooms that pick up steam from their green chili marinade. Fried mahi-mahi is the loser of the crowd. Eating the stiff fish, breaded with tortilla crumbs, shoves me back to Fridays in my grade-school cafeteria.
A category labeled “traditional” gathers some of my favorite combos at Bandolero. Juicy pork meatballs trump the version I tried just days earlier at Oyamel in Penn Quarter. A fluted empanada hovering over a clear pool of sherry vinegar speckled with bits of roasted bell pepper refines that street snack. Of the enchiladas, the tortilla curled around wild mushrooms and white cheese, and draped with green sauce zebra-striped with Mexican crema, is the one that helps me block out the cacophony. Find room as well for a plate of small round cakes of masa (sopes) topped with spicy ground lamb. The sopes are pleasantly chewy; the minced meat is like the kickiest Sloppy Joe ever.
On the other hand, calamari cooked in mezcal lacks punch; the dominant seasoning is salt.
Order a few small plates at a time to prevent your whole meal from descending on the table in 10 minutes. The kitchen doesn’t dawdle once it gets a request, and the young servers don’t let anything cool off once it’s ready.
Desserts are bad, which is good, because you don’t want to stick around Bandolero any longer than necessary. I tried the pepper-pumped chocolate gelato and the stolid coconut flan so you don’t have to waste the calories or endure the rock concert.
The food and drink at Bandolero deserve better than the dark trappings they’re forced to room with -- which, fortunately, are nothing some paint and more illumination can’t fix. (Fingers crossed!) In the meantime, like any wannabe regular, I can only hope the restaurant starts home delivery.