First Bite: Everyday food done well at Nopa


Chef Greg McCarty of Nopa Kitchen + Bar in Penn Quarter is a veteran of the New York restaurant scene. (Marge Ely/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

There’s a new addiction in town. It’s the bread basket at Nopa Kitchen + Bar, the latest idea from the restaurateur who never sleeps, Ashok Bajaj. One bite of the American brasserie’s hot pull-apart rolls, their many layers brushed with butter and herbes de Provence, quickly leads to another, then another.

“Pre-buttered bread!” an equally enthusiastic companion dubs the welcome.

Nopa refers to “North of Pennsylvania Avenue” and finds Greg McCarty at the stove. Born to teachers in Arkansas who worked in Newfoundland, the 40-year-old chef brings to Washington a résumé that includes kitchen service in New York at the esteemed Jean-Georges and at Nobu 57, which is where Bajaj encountered the talent five or so years ago. McCarty has been on the restaurateur’s radar ever since, but until recently, the timing was not right for one or the other to team up.

McCarty’s penchant for sass on the plate pops up in a garnish of bread-and-butter pickles and tangy slaw alongside an appetizer of baby back ribs, and again in a sweet-and-sour broth poured over a “pastiche” of pearl onions, wax beans and pickled watermelon radishes. The soup, red with beets and spiced with star anise, is made creamy with creme fraiche. Tucked in with the vegetables in the center of the bowl: fluffy black quinoa. It sounds like a lot, and it is — a lot of fun to eat. Fresh soft-shell crabs don’t need much embellishment; I appreciate the chef’s restraint with the seafood, crisp from a light dusting of potato starch and a kiss of heat and affixed to its plate with an avocado-basil puree. In contrast, Nopa’s pork chop is routine, most interesting for its dark kale and peaches glazed with sake.

The food comes in a smart package. Bajaj asked his designer for “industrial chic” and got his wish. There’s marble with a geometric stamp on the floor of the bar, white brick walls to separate one airy dining area from the next, bolts and bolts of leather throughout and three private dining rooms (one with a fireplace) to consider for your next small affair.

Stay in your seats for dessert. Pastry chef Jemil Gadea, an alumnus of Picasso in Las Vegas, will make the wait worth your while. His elegant orange creamsicle frappe comes with a delicate citrus madeleine that you wish was sold by the bag, while his piping-hot fried strawberry pies channel a Southern church picnic (well, save for the scoop of fromage blanc ice cream).

In creating his inaugural menu for Nopa, McCarty says, “It was important to me to make food you could eat every day.” It’s far too soon to say his mission is accomplished, but he’s on a bright track.

800 F St. NW. 202-347-4667. www.nopadc.com. Dinner entrees, $19 to $38.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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