Unum, all over the map
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012
Unum is "a little familiar and a little odd at the same time," concedes the chef and co-owner of Georgetown's newest place to eat. But the name, derived from the Latin "E pluribus unum" (Out of many, one), also speaks to the influence so many cultures have had on contemporary American cuisine, says Phillip Blane.
In quarters formerly occupied by Mendocino Grille & Wine Bar, the former sous-chef from Equinox takes diners to Provence with bouillabaisse, to India with a sweetly spiced lamb shank and to the American South with a grilled hanger steak. The last dish is served with grilled okra, barbecue sauce and grits beefed up with crawfish and jalapeno.
"Any questions about the style or substance of the menu?" a server opens dinner shortly after Unum's late-January debut. Plenty is familiar, including beet salad and roast chicken. But Blane adds touches that make both dishes engaging. Those beets - raw, pickled and roasted - are arranged with a citrusy goat cheese, the flavors tied together with a vanilla-fragrant vinaigrette. That succulent chicken comes with jolts of sass in its shower of chopped olives, dried fruit and capers. Diners have the option of slathering their bread with herbed butter or chimichurri.
One of the best dishes at Unum, which Blane owns with his wife, U.S. Senate staffer Laura Schiller, is meatless: gnocchi flavored with rosemary and tossed with sauteed Brussels sprout leaves, butternut squash and cranberries. Juiceless, smoked duck breast doesn't fly with me, however, and neither does the flabby grilled quail.
With their low ceiling, the two narrow dining rooms would feel more cramped were it not for the gold palette and light wood used throughout the space, which opens with a small bar. One man's confinement is another man's coziness.