Here in the District, Joe Englert is the visionary man-child responsible for redefining the term “bottle feeding” within his themed bars crammed with all manner of playthings. Englert was among the first to understand that just because we’re old enough to drink doesn’t make us too old to put away childish things.
Englert has us chugging beers inside the rib cage of a prehistoric beast at the Big Hunt. He has us sipping margaritas while putt-putting around a bust of Teddy Roosevelt’s laughing-hyena visage at H Street Country Club. And now he has us pounding Negronis while tossing bocce balls at Vendetta, his latest venture on H Street NE.
Food is often secondary consideration at these joints. Aside from Granville Moore’s, where chef Teddy Folkman continues to make the most out of his minimalist kitchen, Englert’s places are designed to attract modern culture vultures with a taste for camp and cocktails, not cuisine. Englert and his partners have always understood that the food needed to be only good enough not to distract from the drinks or the overriding vibe. Vendetta may be the first place to betray this approach.
I mean, no amount of sangiovese or bocce ball could save my chicken parmigiana. I had little to criticize about the pounded breast itself, save for its fried coating, which sported scattered scorch marks. What I couldn’t stomach was the sauce surrounding the chicken like a moat. It was nominally tomato-based, but if I had to rate it on a scale from 1 to 10, I’d give it, roughly, a 0.095. Moat water tinted red would have more flavor. I kept re-sampling it, sort of dumbfounded, as if to remind myself that a professional kitchen did indeed serve a sauce this bland.
My plate of Roman ravioli offered no evidence to suggest that the parm was an aberration. The housemade pasta — discs stuffed with an undistinguished combination of cremini mushrooms, spaghetti squash and ricotta — was rolled out thick and cooked to the consistency of old squid. The dish’s sauce exploded with garlic, with a secondary concussion of onions, both ingredients tossed into the mixture like grenades, with nary a clue about how to defuse their pungency.
Sometimes it seemed as if the kitchen was winging it. One evening, when I ordered a selection of antipasti, the board looked as if it had been cobbled together with whatever remained in the walk-in: a few twisted strips of cured ham, a handful of rolled-up slices of spiced mortadella, pistachio-laced goat cheese, a cup of quick-pickled strips of bell pepper, fontina cheese and, oddest of all, a single fingerling potato, sliced and sprinkled with herbs. No crostini was supplied or offered. My dining companion and I poked at it like roadkill.
Mistakes were the norm during my visits. My friend’s Vendetta cheeseburger, ordered medium-rare, arrived with its beef-and-veal patty the color of fireplace ash. It was so dry and lifeless that no amount of smoked provolone or chianti marmalade could revive it. The grilled Caesar salad, spotted with char, was also thirsting for liquid, namely more dressing. The pepper heat of the broccoli rabe all’arrabbiata took a bitter turn with yet another harsh application of garlic.
Even the kitchen’s better efforts underscored issues with execution or menu writing. The ragu Napoletano fulfilled its obligation to stuff us with slow-cooked meats, but the accompanying bucatini had clearly remained in the pasta water too long. The grilled paiche, a monstrous freshwater fish from South America, was a brave choice for chef Laurence Semanyk (who took over from opening chef James Figueroa-Pérez), and he prepared it cleanly, allowing the fish’s strong meaty characteristics to remain front and center. But, again, the entree’s running mate proved a poor partner: The risotto suffered from oversalting, leaving a metallic burn on the tongue.
Only the razor-thin grilled pizza, its spicy marinara a nice contrast to the fresh mozz, was an unqualified hit (though the appetizer was dubbed a “Margherita” pie, a description that would make a traditionalist slap his own head given the random heat addition).
Vendetta’s inauspicious performance in the kitchen stands in stark contrast to the two-story space itself, a handsome brick-and-wood interior with bars and bocce ball courts on both levels. In typical Englertarian fashion, the place doesn’t take itself seriously; it almost smirks and winks at its own concept, with a Vespa-themed decor and single black roses on the tables. If the flowers are supposed to symbolize vengeance, or at least the safe cinematic vengeance of Mafia flicks, then I suppose this review is a cold slap: a reminder that disappointing performances do carry consequences.