At Eat the Rich, you’ll want to eat the seafood and drink the cocktails

December 31, 2013

For someone who says he never set out to be a “serial bar owner,” Derek Brown is doing an ace job convincing Washington otherwise.

His fluid empire began in 2009 with the Passenger and Columbia Room, a scruffy tavern enclosing a gem of a cocktail lair near the convention center, and expanded in June with Mockingbird Hill, a sherry and ham bar in Shaw that was followed next door in October by Eat the Rich, featuring seafood and cocktails by the pitcher.

Just last month, Southern Efficiency squeezed into the same block as its siblings. Bar number five takes its name from John F. Kennedy’s famous dig at the capital (“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm”) and touts whiskey and lunch-counter fare.

People who have been my guests at Mockingbird Hill show up at Eat the Rich with a sense of déjà vu. Not only do the neighbors have similar storefront windows, they are both long and narrow, with bars running down their left sides. Yet the spaces enjoy distinct personalities. The former is light; the latter is dark. And the semi-private area in back of Eat the Rich, set off with illumination by way of oyster cages, is made dramatic with murals of skeletons inspired by Chessie, the sea creature that supposedly inhabits Chesapeake Bay.

You should expect a rewarding oyster experience at Eat the Rich; a co-owner in the project is Travis Croxton of the Rappahannock Oyster Company, who supplies the watering hole with Rappahannock oysters from his farm in Topping, Va., as well as stingrays from Chesapeake Bay and Olde Salts from Chincoteague. Yet my initial dip into bivalves here was disappointing; while they showed attention from the shuckers, who did a neat job opening the shells, the oysters were merely cool rather than cold. A subsequent oyster run yielded chillier temperatures.

Waiters offer a verbal tour of the iced collection as the platter is set down. Rappahannock oysters are “refreshing, like a cucumber,” we’re told. Stingrays are “briny,” while Olde Salts live up to their billing. The selection comes with enhancers, although the most I ever add is a squeeze of lemon, because why mess with the pure flavor of the sea? Chablis is what you want to drink with the oysters, partly because the pairing is as classic as pinot noir and salmon, but also because “Kathy Morgan says so!” The inside joke is a reference to master sommelier Kathy Morgan, currently part of the stellar wine team at Range in Friendship Heights.

A richer start to the night comes by way of Redneck Laundry, a mountain of Route 11 potato chips flanked by a choice of glistening trout roe or bowfin eggs along with chopped egg yolk, minced red onion and creme fraiche for spreading or dipping. The outsize pleasure is one you could imagine Jethro Bodine inhaling around the Clampetts’ “cement pond,” if he had a taste for fish eggs.

Another point of difference between the neighboring bars, their kitchens watched over by charcuterie maven Julien Shapiro, 39: Mockingbird Hill and its brief menu tend to celebrate raw products — cured meats, nut snacks — and the occasional warm dish, while Eat the Rich plays up more cooked, and more refined, fare.

“Neither Hot Nor Cold” covers a handful of small plates that are just that. Salt cod, whipped with milk and walnut oil to a rich puree, gets nice punctuation from chili in the seasoning and toasted walnuts as a garnish. With that brandade, be sure to order a side of house-baked buckwheat sourdough bread. Served warm from the grill, the crisp slices make perfect vehicles for the near-liquid fish.

Perhaps the most beautiful composition on the entire menu is the unlikely Beach and Beans: a chunk of albacore tuna poached in olive oil and gilded with clams, grilled squid and pickled mackerel — each element there for good reason — and completed with tender flageolet beans and colorful coins of radishes and carrots. The seafood salad would look at home at Palena, the Cleveland Park dining destination where Shapiro worked from 2006 to 2011. (Brown is also an alumnus of the restaurant.)

A category called “Hot” finds all sorts of food you want to eat when it’s cold. The warm-ups include a big bowl of seafood chowder — its clams and oysters gently heated, everything lightened with celery — and an elegant riff on the traditional Swedish casserole called Jansson’s Temptation. A layering of julienned potatoes, soft onions and anchovies that collapse into sauce, the soothing dish, from the chef’s Swedish stepmother, is fragrant with allspice and sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs. “Hot” also finds leg of lamb with root vegetables and grilled oysters, and a fish pie that looks as if it belongs in the window of a patisserie. Beneath the glossy pastry cover is a filling of shrimp, scallops and fish trimmings, bound with a bit of Shapiro’s chowder, that’s delicious (albeit a shake too seasoned with salt). Pickled cauliflower and other vegetables add color and bite to the presentation.

Little escapes the attention of the chef. Notice the carved potatoes in the chowder? Shapiro thinks asking his cooks to “turn” the vegetable makes for a prouder kitchen. Such practices have the side benefit of making diners appreciate the kitchen crew more.

It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone and order your usual libation. Consider straying with whatever cocktail is the drink of the day here. Mezcal with chartreuse and a sliver of crisp green apple might be your zingy reward. Cocktails sold by the pitcher — beer with house-made Clamato, among others — are prepared with the same attention to detail, and one (pitcher) at a time.

Where does Brown find the savvy young servers who tend to his venues? While the market lacks a deep pool of hospitality workers, he says, Washington is rich with smart people. Some of them can be found here, behind the bar or navigating the tables. Bottom line, says Brown of his staff: “They have to care about the mission.”

Named for a Motörhead song, Eat the Rich is not the place to meet the friend in need of a heart-to-heart or the acquaintance known to cup his ear in conversation; the earlier the better for those who don’t like noisy scenes. On cold nights, avoid sitting near the door, where blasts of frigid air distract you from enjoying whatever’s on your table. The entrance begs for protection from the elements.

Brown and company have a habit of noticing what’s missing on the scene and finding a way to fill the void. Like snowflakes, no two of their watering holes are the same. And like smiles, their ideas are most welcome.

★★½ star

(Good/Excellent)
Eat the Rich

1839 Seventh St. NW. 202-316-9396. etrbar.com.

OPEN: 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday.

METRO: Shaw/Howard.

PRICES: Small plates $8 to $19.

SOUND CHECK: 83 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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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