How long is too long to stand in line for a burger and fries? Would you wait 20 minutes outside in 90-degree heat? Then 27 minutes more once the crowd-controlling doorman lets you in? What if "Top Chef" contestant Spike Mendelsohn was jamming behind the counter? Then would it be worth it?
"It'd better be a pretty darn good burger," we grumbled as we waited our turn with throngs of congressional staffers and the Bugaboo stroller crowd that had arrived to sample Capitol Hill's Good Stuff Eatery, which opened in early July. It's a Mendelsohn family venture: Mother Catherine worked on the menu, father Harvey works the floor and sister Micheline does the marketing.
As far as waiting goes, it's actually pretty pleasant. That door greeter, who ensures customers enter the joint in an orderly fashion, was friendly and had plenty of menu advice: The bacon is "awesome"; the toasted marshmallow shake is already a "signature." Inside, the streamlined farmhouse decor, with whitewashed wood plank floors and a giant cowbell hanging from the ceiling, seamlessly blends with oversize photos of the fedora-wearing Spike and the blasting rock music. We were pleased to see 12 cooks working behind the counter to keep the lines moving.
We were starving by the time we got our food, but not so desperate that we failed to notice a few flaws. The burgers were well seasoned, sized and packaged but were cooked to a tough medium-well. The Village Fries, elegantly spiced with fresh thyme and rosemary, weren't crispy despite having been fried twice, and the homegrown Vidalia onion rings were lumps of mushed-together fried onions that resembled a run-over baby octopus.
That said, the Blazin' Barn burger, with pickled daikon, carrots, mint and Thai basil and cilantro, was about as refreshing as a burger can be. ("Thai McDonald's," my companion said, meaning it as a compliment.) The strawberry milkshake (we got the perfectly sized 16-ounce "Mini Moo") was summer in a plastic cup. That bacon on our Farmhouse Bacon Cheese burger was indeed awesome.
Style was always Mendelsohn's strong point, and there's plenty on display at Good Stuff. More locations are in the works, but with Five Guys just a few miles away, this not-quite-top chef will need to increase consistency to keep the lines long.
-- Jane Black (First Bite, Aug. 13, 2008)
Former 'Top Chef' Contender Unpacks His Knives in D.C.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008; Page N02
His latest challenge is to deal with a health inspector who has arrived four hours early.
Wearing orange Crocs, a reddish brambly beard on his face, the signature fedora forsaken for a more work-appropriate bandanna, Spike Mendelsohn, a not-quite-finalist from the recently completed season of Bravo's "Top Chef," is frazzled. He springs into a white Acura sport-utility vehicle on Pennsylvania Avenue and heads to his new home on Capitol Hill to pick up a permit and photo ID.
It's a gorgeous mid-June day. Contractors shoot the breeze outside his soon-to-open restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery. A woman from a food-service equipment company sucks on a cigarette by her truck.
"If he doesn't sign a release before he leaves, Spike's rear end is going down to city hall," she rasps.
This challenge is not being filmed by a TV camera crew. Mendelsohn, 27, is not throwing together a dish. He's throwing together a franchise. Or so he hopes.
Season four of "Top Chef" is over. Mendelsohn made the top five before he was booted. (Let's not mention the waterlogged scallops that doomed him.) Sweet, apple-pie-faced Stephanie Izard won the title. Fine. She has several years of experience on Mendelsohn. But she also won the title of fan favorite on the "Top Chef" reunion show two weeks ago. That distinction maybe should've been Mendelsohn's. After all, he played the game cunningly and humorously. Is he annoyed?
"A little bit," says Mendelsohn, who moved from New York earlier this month. Then the spin: "I've gotten such great reaction from the public no matter where I go."
"They love that I've decided to come to D.C. From everyone I meet here, I hear, 'We need more good food here on the Hill. We need more good food in the city. We loved you on the show.' "
Nothing but plaudits, then?
"I'm sure I've shook a couple hands with people who're thinking, 'Boy, this guy's an [expletive].' "
[Expletive] or not, he's the frontman for Good Stuff, a burger-and-fries joint that will be the flagship location upon which the Mendelsohn family chefs build their restaurant business. The plan is to do a burger better than anyone, applying classical training to America's signature dish, and then expand Good Stuff to, say, Adams Morgan or Arlington. Then go national. Then Mendelsohn wants to return to gourmet fare, to do his Vietnamese tapas place, his French bistro, his trattoria.
It's all knocking around in his head, and he wanted to start the empire in the up-and-coming restaurant arena of Washington rather than the saturated, cutthroat market of New York.
"I think it is the next big food city," he says of the District, citing Michel Richard and Jose Andres as chefs who have ushered in great change in the past five years. "I would like to be an ambassador of bringing young, hip restaurants here. I'm looking at D.C. as a blank canvas where I hope to practice my art form."
(A sneak peek at some of the art, consumable upon the July 7 opening: a farmhouse cheeseburger on a Pennsylvania Dutch bun for $5.89, the double-patty Big Stuff Bacon Meltdown for $7.69, country fries seasoned with rosemary and thyme for $2.79 and a toasted marshmallow milkshake made with house-made ice cream for $5.25.)
"What I'm taking away is it's much more of a restaurateur project for me," Mendelsohn says. "It's not a chefy-chefy kitchen where you're there at 7 a.m. slaving over sauces. It's a little more of a corporate world for me. I'm with my family, but there's so much to learn with opening something like this."
The restaurant is sleek, even though things are distressed to exude a farmhouse feel. The wood floors are distressed. The zinc countertops will be washed with acid so they look distressed.
Mendelsohn doesn't look distressed. Just busy. Out the door to get the permit. In the door to debate fryer temperatures with his mother, the red-haired Catherine Mendelsohn ("You want fries with that?," she mugs from behind the counter), who with her husband, "Big Harv" Mendelsohn, has managed restaurants from Montreal to Florida.
"Perfectly charming people," says neighbor James Nash, co-owner of Zack's Taverna. "I saw the episode where Spike made boxed lunches, so I'm excited about his food." (The $10 Lunch Bag Special will get you a farmhouse burger, hand-cut fries and a fountain soda.)
On this aforementioned gorgeous June day, the restaurant is not finished. The flat-screen TVs are in; the giant plastic cowbell chandelier contraption is not. Mendelsohn's sister, Micheline, director of marketing for Good Stuff, announces some good news.
"We just passed the health inspection," she says.
Another hurdle cleared in a challenge that has been more complicated than any on "Top Chef."