The $20 Diner does not live by pollo a la brasa alone. Sometimes, I need a drink.
Yeah, I know. I remember what I wrote more than a year ago: that this space would be an alcohol-free zone, a concession to keep the tab under the allotted budget. But when you run into a savant like Nathan Zeender, head brewer at Right Proper Brewing Company in Shaw, you realize rules can become arbitrary limitations that harden into a paralysis of the mind.
More than that, you understand rules are for the kind of unyielding types who will never order a sour barrel-aged beer during their long, plodding lives, let alone try to brew one in their basement. Rules are for capitalists and investors who could never imagine building a business around someone who loves such beers and has devoted his life — his free time, no less — to creating avant-garde ales that will pass the lips of only friends and fellow connoisseurs.
Fortunately, Thor Cheston, the Georgetown graduate who helped launch Birreria Paradiso, is not bound by conventional thinking. Owner of Right Proper (with John Snedden, founder of the small Rocklands barbecue chain), Cheston rolled the dice on Zeender, a home brewer with no professional brewing experience. Zeender’s only credentials were his homemade beers, each a handcrafted beverage built from the limited ingredients of the brewer’s art — and an unlimited imagination.
I’ve been casing Right Proper for months, watching the brew pub evolve since its December opening. The place exhibits a fluidity that borders on flash flooding, an ever-changing bounty of beers and dishes that asks you not to cling too tightly to anything as you ride the waves. In less than a year, Right Proper has already changed head chefs, brewed more than 35 beers and instituted an ambitious cheese program.
Befitting a place that honors the craft of brewing, Right Proper sells a number of guest beers on draft as well as bottles and cans from the finest artisanal brewers. I’ve yet to order a single one. I’ve been too fascinated with Zeender’s experiments, which span a wide spectrum of styles, many slapped with names that showcase the brewer’s affection for puns or the arts. Some beers have long disappeared from the menu, the joy and frustration of a small-batch brewer.
Zeender’s No Depression, a “country alt” beer based on Dusseldorf altbiers (hence the reference to the alt-country music genre), struck me as a particularly roasty version, with a pronounced bitter finish. The Tropicalia, available during the World Cup, was inspired by the polyrhythmic fusion sounds out of Brazil in the 1960s; as such, Zeender employed a fusion of farmhouse yeasts to create a fruity, aggressively hopped saison. His 100th batch was an open fermented dark farmhouse ale called Fausto, named after an Italian cyclist; it went down like a stout, with a robust brewed-coffee flavor with a hoppier backbone.
Beer after beer, whether Wild Wolves (a variation of Zeender’s earlier IPA-like concoction, this one with wild yeast) or the Ornette (a grisette farmhouse wheat ale made from a mix of yeasts borrowed from other breweries), Zeender proves to be a beast with yeasts. He plays with them with the aggressiveness of a gamer.
As you might imagine, it’s hard for a chef to compete with this kind of sheer brewing genius. The problem is compounded by the nature of brew pubs, where experimentation is not always rewarded by diners looking for little more than grease, salt and starch. Robert Cain (who replaced opening chef Matt Richardson) does an admirable job finding the small cracks where he might shine a bright light on the dingy pub-grub menu, although his most creative work tends to be found on a separate specials page.
Cain and kitchen have a tendency to overwork their snacks and sandwiches, in what sometimes smells like an attempt to match the innovation on the brewery side. They’re also battling, on many nights, the forces of sheer volume, which has led to sloppiness. I’ve dined on undercooked biscuits and a “southern fried chick-filet” sandwich that dripped with well-used fryer oil.
Yet some issues are conceptual: The lamb French dip is a smart twist on the original, but the robust bite bursts with so much sharp mustard and salty gruyere that it renders the red wine jus superfluous.
Likewise, the brioche bun gets lost in the barbecued pulled pork and its rising tide of sweet, tangy sauce. And although I loved dunking the crackly pork rinds into a house-made pimento cheese, I would have preferred a meatier spread over the lighter, whipped cheese sauce that Cain has engineered.
The kitchen’s penchant for piling on works better with its grilled cheese on sourdough and its juicy burger topped with house-smoked cheddar. The grilled cheese is sliced and the halves stacked atop each other, creating this lava flow of cheddar and fontina cheeses. The thick-cut bread is proportioned perfectly, providing enough crustiness and air to fool you into thinking you’re not chowing down on cheese for dinner.
But the dish that captured my imagination was Cain’s fried chicken livers paired with a pungent mumbo sauce, this sly nod to District carryouts. (The original menu item was fried chicken parts; the dish was streamlined in February.) The dish was balanced and delicious, a smart homage to the past in this mural-filled space carved out of an old billiards hall, where Duke Ellington apparently flashed a pool cue, not a conductor’s baton. It was one moment when I felt the kitchen matched Zeender’s skill at honoring his forebears while creating something unique to Washington.
624 T St. NW.
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday 5 p.m. to midnight; Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Shaw, with a 0.1-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Sandwiches and entrees: $11-$16. House-made beers, $4-$6.