Keeping it simple
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012
Here's one of the reasons I admire District Commons: During the most recent Restaurant Week, the Foggy Bottom newcomer let customers choose from nearly its entire menu, in the same generous portions it has dished up since opening in October. Whether you got a giant brick-pressed chicken or shrimp and grits during the promotion last month, the food was delivered by servers who, despite the crowds, appeared to be happy explaining the restaurant's pretzel loaf and flagging the presence of 99 all-American beers at the bar.
A warm welcome and value have long been the hallmarks of Passion Food Hospitality, a little empire of dining rooms co-owned by chef Jeff Tunks that includes Acadiana, Ceiba and DC Coast in Washington and PassionFish in Reston. (District Commons' neighbor, Burger Tap & Shake, is a sibling that shares a kitchen with the 180-seat tavern.)
That pretzel loaf, a baguette by way of Munich, costs $2 and comes with a mustard butter for spreading on the warm bread. You can mindlessly tear through it as you sip your beer, cocktail or wine (and bravo to the server who steered me to a less pricey syrah than I was mulling one night). Just remember that what's coming to the table is going to dominate the space.
Also keep the company's fish-rich portfolio in mind when you're ordering. Except for the limited selection, oysters on the half shell always please me, and so does shrimp cocktail with a biting sauce. Chowder is crammed with seafood - crab, shrimp, chopped clams - and jolted with chipotle adobo. Oyster crackers dusted with dill seed and served in a wax paper packet are both a fun visual and a complement to the soup.
District Commons refers to its Caesar salad laced with anchovies as a "Second Date" Caesar. It's more fun to hear the explanation - a heaping helping of garlic - than to eat the routine salad topped with airy croutons. Trout splayed on its plate with crisp broccolini is mugged of its flavor. The culprit: astringent citrus butter.
Sense a theme at District Commons? Simple is the path to follow. Tilapia, blackened just to tease rather than to torch the tongue, was among recent satisfying specials. A colorful toss of greens, dressed to a light gloss with champagne vinaigrette, fills out the plate. On a heartier front might be shiny roast duck flanked with nutty wild rice and diced sweet potatoes: cold weather comfort.
If you exclude the three "recession-proof" entrees - a New York strip steak, crab cakes and lamb chops - main courses at dinner average a tavern-friendly $18.
There are some lemons in the lot. One of them is a pot pie built with a pedestrian shell and a filling of beige root vegetables and squash that could pass for a sad prop in an English boarding school of yore. Where's the color, the flavor (and did anyone run this by a focus group)? The pork chop teetering on a custardlike johnny cake has thickness going for it, but its eggplant relish lacks the tang of a good chowchow, and the meat is overdressed with mozzarella and ham. And while I like that enormous chicken with its garlicky pan juices, its mashed potatoes are more watery than creamy.
Late diners will have to tell me whether the Family Meal is worth staying up for, but I dig the idea of offering customers the food the staff eats. At 10 p.m., the sound of a bell signals the chance to try (in the bar or lounge only) a slab of meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, or pupusas and fixings; the dishes are priced to please at $12.
And three cheers for a children's menu that includes the day's grilled catch with mashed potatoes for $6 in addition to what a restaurant kitchen must feel forced to put out: a burger, parmesan pasta and fried chicken with french fries. Truth be told, if I were 10 again I'd probably make a grab for the ham biscuits, another kids' option.
The pastry kitchen's best effort is a riff on Boston cream pie, rethought as a little tower of sponge cake sweetened with a filling of custard and finished with a glossy curtain of sauce made with melted fudge. A dollop of caramel sauce hit with a sprinkle of sea salt makes it even more modern.
Chocoholics are likely to head for the devil's food cake, its sweetness tempered with creme fraiche (and its hazelnut ice cream stuck on mute). I know the funnel cake counts fans, but I'm not among them. The cloying dessert smacks of under-fried batter.
I've never dined in this open expanse, conveniently close to the Kennedy Center, that I haven't found myself bobbing forward and back like a toy dipping bird. Surely you know why: The high ceilings and the hard floors do nothing to tamp down the noise of the crowd at peak hours. On the plus side, the curved wall of windows facing Washington Circle puts diners out on the street in the best possible sense. One night, the exterior show captured the vice president amid a fleet of shiny black cars and flashes of blue light. A shock of silver hair in one of the limousines gave away Joe Biden.
The restaurant isn't blazing any culinary trails with its cooking, but sometimes a diner just wants a decent piece of fish with a good drink and a side of pampering.
District Commons, you're being paged.
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.