NOTE: Chef Rahman "Rock" Harper has left the restaurant.
Tom Sietsema wrote about Next Door for a February 2009 First Bite column.
"We weren't supposed to open until February, but this guy Obama came to town," we overheard a harried but smiling manager tell a couple of diners in January at the new Next Door.
"Next Door" is a nod to the adjacent Ben's Chili Bowl, which appeared to be both a beneficiary and a victim of events surrounding the inauguration. When the president-elect dropped by for a half-smoke, he promptly put the beloved diner on the map for, oh, about the thousandth time in its 50-year run. Nizam Ali, whose family operates both establishments, says some customers told him they'd waited in line for 2 1/2 hours to get a taste of Ben's.
Hate lines? The copper-topped bar at Next Door stretches forever (well, 53 feet) and offers some of what Ben's does, including chili dogs and buffalo wings. The two-level dining room in the back, on the other hand, is the new roost of Rahman "Rock" Harper, a native of Alexandria best known for winning the Fox reality-TV show "Hell's Kitchen." Harper comes to the District from Las Vegas after his head-chef turn at the Green Valley Ranch Resort, the one-year gig he landed in the TV competition.
We suspect that "Hell's" snarling star, British chef Gordon Ramsay, might tell Harper he needs more zip in his pork ribs appetizer and fresher fish for his salmon entree. But we wouldn't change anything about the tender beef short ribs served with whipped sweet potatoes and decorated with crisp onion rings, or the warm and decadent chocolate-pecan pie, said by our server to be Harper's favorite. (It's ours, too.) "Everyone raves about the mac and cheese," she also told us. Sure enough, the side dish reveals a nice balance between crunchy topping and creamy noodles.
Next Door, with its small kitchen and dining area, was designed to be "a bar with food," not a restaurant requiring a chef, Ali says. But when Harper became available, he says, the plan changed. What that means right now for the customer is service that is still finding its way and a brief menu of upscale comfort food -- nothing a slice of Rock's pie can't smooth over.
(Feb. 11, 2009)