A fast lunch, hold the grease
By Justin Rude
Friday, March 9, 2012
Aaron Gordon, the owner of Red Velvet Cupcakery and TangySweet, is the man behind Rabbit, a fast-casual Clarendon restaurant described by its owner as a "salad and grill." That means diners will be met by a menu of salads and a selection of simple grilled meats and trendy sandwiches (think classic Cuban, banh mi and pimento grilled cheese), created by Jose Andres alumnus and future Daikaya chef Katsuya Fukushima.
If the idea of a counter-service restaurant serving fancy salads and sandwiches doesn't strike you as particularly bold, consider some of Rabbit's neighbors: BGR, Hard Times Cafe and Pete's Apizza. A short walk from the Clarendon Metro, this eight-month-old, 50-seat restaurant stands out as a (relatively) healthful choice among a gaggle of greasy heavy hitters.
In the back of the warm dining room decorated in red, gray and natural wood is a long open grill area. Salads are assembled here, and the grill is used to finish most of the meat offerings, which are par-cooked in a separate kitchen. Some of these carnivorous options bedeck two of the restaurant's most popular selections: the seared tuna and steak salads. Like much of what is offered here, these two items are simple and satisfying, if not groundbreaking. The seared tuna tops a fairly traditional Nicoise, with mixed greens, olives, haricots verts, hard-boiled egg and roasted tomatoes with an anchovy-spiked vinaigrette.
The steak salad is filled out with baby red potatoes, red onion, blue cheese and a balsamic dressing.
My favorite from the restaurant's leafy list is the title role. Carrots are the natural star of the Rabbit salad. The mix maximizes carrot use - roasted carrots, shaved carrots, diced carrots and carrot-top pesto are tossed with mixed greens, snow peas, mint leaves and a citrus vinaigrette and manages to make for an earthy but tart entree.
Some of Rabbit's most pleasing offerings are among its least healthful. The Cuban sandwich is a pleasant surprise. A crispy-on-the-outside, pillowy-on-the-inside bun encases layers of braised pork shoulder, ham, pickles, mozzarella and a dijon aioli. The traditionalist will balk at some of the substitutions (No roasted pork? No Swiss cheese? No yellow mustard?), but the execution is solid and the ooey-gooey result a pleasure.
A banh mi featuring grilled chicken, chicken liver pate and pickled carrots is similarly apocryphal, but is light, tasty and packs a nice kick courtesy of a few slices of fresh jalapeno.
Vegetarians will be happy with the Vegetable Love sandwich, which loads its bun with a pile of roasted and grilled onions, peppers and zucchini. A nutty romesco sauce and a slice of pineapple bring sweetness and depth.
Separating itself from the salad lunch chains, Rabbit offers a small selection of wine and craft beers. Diners can also pick from a selection of Red Velvet Cupcakery confections for dessert. The location has two doors, one designated for Rabbit, and one for Red Velvet, but both open to the same dining room and share a register.
The restaurant closes at 11 p.m., but April will mark the return of the Rabbit Hole, a late-night counter that serves a limited menu to Clarendon's nightlife crowds till 2 a.m.
When it opened, the concept seemed to have appealed to a mostly female and lunchtime audience. But since then, "it's changed significantly," Gordon says. "We're getting a lot of couples now, and a lot of young families." And now that Rabbit has hit its stride, it's time for expansion: Gordon has eyes on the Dupont Circle area for the first outpost.