That's the chef, waving from the window
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011
The latest creation from Passion Food Hospitality finds two restaurants sharing one kitchen in about 10,000 square feet in Foggy Bottom. Long and curved, District Commons, a modern American tavern, and Burger Tap & Shake, its fast-food neighbor, come with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Washington Circle.
"By far my favorite place to work," says Jeff Tunks of his two new dining attractions. The veteran chef is a frequent presence in the display kitchen at the tavern, which features a raw bar on one end and an open hearth on the other. Unlike his other restaurant kitchens - Acadiana, Ceiba and DC Coast in the District and Passionfish in Reston - this one lets him wave to friends on the street.
The more ambitious of the two new operations is District Commons, cool in concrete, bare tables and a light palette. By the time my party was greeted and seated, no fewer than three staff members had pointed to the cooler behind the bar and informed us that they had "99 bottles of beer on the wall." (Okay! Okay! We get that you have a lot of American suds to sell.) You pay $2 for bread here, and the brown pretzel loaf, hot from the flames and served with mustard dip, is worth it.
While the menu borrows ideas from its siblings - a seafood cobb salad similar to the one served at Passionfish, a roast duck entree related to a dish at Acadiana - the choices at the tavern also include brick-pressed chicken, vegetable potpie, a pork chop with eggplant chowchow, and flatbreads in different guises. The flatbreads' decorations are superior to their crisp but tasteless crusts. Steamed mussels in a bath of red curry are pleasant, while shrimp and grits reminds this diner that Tunks once cooked in New Orleans (at the Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel).
At 10 p.m., a bell is rung and a novelty joins the list: the staff meal. For $12, patrons can order whatever the restaurant crew is fed that day. I made a mental note to return on a Monday for Tunks's mom's meatloaf, served with green beans and scalloped potatoes in a Pyrex dish.
Count me a fan as well of District Commons' $16 burger, shaped with cold-smoked short ribs and heaped with coleslaw. Only a fine, house-baked bun links the sandwich to the $6 model sold at Burger Tap & Shake.
The gentler-priced burger needs no adornment. Aged, ground beef chuck and brisket formed into a soft patty -- then seared over charcoal, completed on a griddle and slipped into a glossy toasted bun -- is plenty of satisfaction. Even so, there are dozens of ways to dress up a burger if you wish. My favorite enhancement? A straw, for any of the six great milkshakes whipped up using ice cream that the restaurant churns itself.