There’s a new Cause, and it’s a worthy one
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 6, 2013
Five years ago, Raj Ratwani was an academic spending as much as 70 hours a week on cognitive psychology. His buddy Nick Vilelle
had recently returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in Africa. Catching up over a meal at the Clarendon Ballroom, the former George Mason University classmates talked about making more of an impact on people’s lives. Vilelle, for one, knew how even a small amount of money could make big differences.
Looking around at fellow diners, Ratwani recalls, it hit him: “Food and drink bring people together.” What if he and Vilelle opened a bar or restaurant where the profits went to a worthy cause?
In the succeeding years, the men finessed their idea. In Washington, they reasoned, diners’ short attention spans and high expectations meant they had one shot to get their concept right. Also, “two psychology school students opening a restaurant is never a good idea,” Ratwani says. Wisely, he and Vilelle sought the counsel of restaurateurs John Jarecki and Dave Pressley, whose brand of hospitality they had admired at establishments including Rustico and Vermilion, both in Alexandria.
Cause, which opened in October, doesn’t shout to make itself heard. Yes, its front window declares the business a “philanthropub.” But the only pitch you get from your server is for a drink or some food, and it might not be until the end of a meal that you realize all your chewing and sipping are for good causes. After the restaurant pays its expenses and salaries, remaining profits go to four charities that have been identified by Cause’s advisory board. Diners vote for their choice when they pay their bill. The current options are Agora Partnerships,
Common Good City Farm,
Higher Achievement and Martha’s Table.
Less than $140,000 was spent to open Cause. Much of the sweat to get it up and running was donated, Ratwani explains. The green walls of the narrow first floor showcase the painting skills of young area artists, whose portraits of Harvey Milk, Mahatma Gandhi and Sojourner Truth, among other activists, also inspire some of the cocktails at Cause. A larger upstairs dining room finds papier-mache tree branches spreading across the ceiling, tall tables created from repurposed wood and stools crafted from old apple barrel bottoms. I’ve never dropped by that there wasn’t a party on the second floor. Admirably, Cause does not charge revelers to host a function, nor does it require a minimum food or drink order.
All involved know good intentions won’t sustain Cause. “We have to compete with every bar and restaurant” in the neighborhood, Ratwani says. Heading up the kitchen is executive chef Adam Stein, who has the same title at Light Horse, Jarecki’s restaurant in Alexandria. Adam Litchfield, a veteran of Trummers on Main in Clifton and New Heights in Woodley Park, serves as Cause’s chef de cuisine. Theirs is a short menu, augmented by chalkboard specials, that plays up innards and sandwiches and aims to put out food that does not, as Ratwani says, taste as if it were “off a Sysco truck.”
Everyone is doing wings these days, but not everyone makes them so compelling you want to order a second batch. Cause salutes General Tso with its super-juicy appetizer, the recipe for which starts with brined chicken and emerges from the fry pan racy with ginger, garlic and Sichuan pepper and glossy with caramelized Chinese red sugar. The only extra these beauties need is a moist cloth for cleaning up sticky fingers afterward.
Hush puppies are popping up left, right and center as well. The snack here is crisp and fluffy, dusted with queso fresco and zapped with pickled peppers and lime zest, brighteners that elevate the fried food from the usual.
Just about every restaurant serves a sausage platter, too. Cause’s meaty $7 tableau consists of headcheese, pt, fine scrapple and a chicken liver mousse that is so airy it should be labeled chicken liver whipped cream. Ultimately, the sum is better than the parts.
More originality comes by way of an African stew created from lots of shredded chicken and ground peanuts. The shout-out to Vilelle and his time in the Peace Corps is my favorite meal; each spoonful pulses with ginger, garlic and chilies, a one-two-three punch softened with sesame oil. The thick toast alongside comes in handy for cleaning the bowl. Cause’s chefs should put out more like this.
Aside from a pleasant green salad and maybe a special (beet and carrot soup), vegetable compositions appear to be on the chefs’ no-fly list. My dip into vegan territory had me reaching for another bite of a companion’s hamburger. The Quentil Burger takes its name from the pureed quinoa and lentils that shape its golden patty, which tastes by turns like falafel ... and tater tots. The first bite is fine; more resembles a bread sandwich. I gobble the thick, hand-cut french fries that fill out the plate, though. Of the sandwiches, fried oysters with kimchi, and the juicy lamb burger bedded on focaccia are most likely to get me back.
Lull in the conversation? Magic markers sprout from a glass on the yellow table tops, which are meant to be drawn on and can be cleaned with the swipe of a paper napkin. My neighbor impressed her date, and me, when she wrote “Happy Birthday” in front of him -- upside down.
The bar does swell by classic cocktails. Some of Cause’s original creations found me calling for another round, too. The rye whisky-fueled Truth, for instance, gets a nice assist from apple cider, Riesling and tarragon. And cheers to the restaurant for holding happy hours daily from 4 to 7 p.m., during which select wines, beers and drinks are $5.
Ratwani calls himself “a service snob,” which results in a dining room staff that’s both enthusiastic and conscientious. One gets the sense the servers show up for more than just tips.
It’s too soon to say how much money the enterprise is adding to the coffers of local charities. The restaurant’s owners are shooting for between $80,000 and $100,000 by the end of the restaurant’s first year. Cause for applause.