When critics pick apart food trucks, they often focus on congested streets and kitchen cleanliness — as if there weren’t a single public servant devoted to these issues — while glossing over the larger business-incubator implications of the mobile vendors. Mothership, chef Stephan Boillon’s brick-and-mortar expansion of his El Floridano truck, is a prime example of how a small street operator can, in short order, become a grounded and gratifying member of the community.
For years, Boillon had wanted to launch his own restaurant, but during the Great Recession, money was tighter than Christina Hendricks’s sheaths on “Mad Men,” even for a chef with experience. Boillon, former executive chef at Dino in Cleveland Park, had a long track record of helming restaurants in South Florida, his native stomping ground, and yet the best he could do was scrape together enough cash to launch his excellent lunch wagon in May 2010. It would become his gateway business to a full-service restaurant, with four walls and a restroom, which seems to be the only kind of eatery some consider legit.
“Without the truck,” Boillon says matter-of-factly, “I don’t think [Mothership] would have been possible.”
Maybe it’s the 3 Stars Brewing Co.’s Peppercorn Saison talking — I admit that I sucked down several of these citrusy, slightly spicy farmhouse ales — but already I can’t imagine the Park View neighborhood without Mothership, as if Boillon’s restaurant actually were a docking station where locals could seek refuge and refueling. Come to think of it, maybe the 87-seat Mothership is the gastronomic equivalent of the P-Funk Mothership, bringing a funky collision of ingredients to the people instead of a throbbing bassline and glitter costumes.
Boillon’s concise one-page menu is stuffed with surprises and oddities, most of them worth exposing your palate to. The chief oddity is the seared Louisiana sheepshead with sweet-and-sour lentils, which sadly I did not get a chance to order before deadline but mention here anyway for one reason: This monster fish has human-like teeth! It’s one step removed from eating Admiral Ackbar
of “Return of the Jedi.”
I give Boillon considerable credit for his choice of fish, which while freaky in appearance, is affordable and, even better, sustainable. It takes guts to put such sea creatures as the sheepshead and blue catfish on the menu. The latter is an invasive species that has generated a wave of terror
along the Potomac; Boillon takes his revenge on this beast in a bowl of asiago grits with tasso gravy, a rich and piquant preparation that contrasts well with the slightly muddy flavor of the fish. Rarely has managing intruders tasted so good.
The funk is found not just on the fish portion of the menu, either. Take a deep whiff of Boillon’s “spice route” chicken noodle soup, a bowl of glass noodles, huitlacoche and aromatic spices in a broth the color of dark chocolate. Think of it as the chef’s interpretation of pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup; its pile-up of sweet-sour-spicy flavors is both inscrutable and incandescent (although I think the glass noodles don’t ferry the broth as well as traditional pho strands would).