Anthony Chittum finally has a dining room that befits his cooking. Not to slight the chef’s previous posts, among them Vermilion in Alexandria and Notti Bianche in Foggy Bottom, but the former Iron Gate Inn in Dupont Circle, introduced in 1923, comes with history and charm in spades.
Washingtonians of a certain vintage might retain a soft spot for the location, one of the District’s oldest continuously operating restaurants. Yet the Middle Eastern food took a back seat to a romantic setting that always felt like a secret in the middle of the city. “When warm weather comes,” wrote my predecessor, Phyllis C. Richman, nearly 30 years ago, “it would not matter if the Iron Gate Inn charged you for bringing your lunch; its garden is so delightful that people would eat there no matter what.” The Virginia-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, of which Vermilion and Chittum are a part, acquired the property after it went dark in 2010.
There are two ways to taste Iron Gate. One strategy is the no-reservations bar, set in a long hall at the entrance dominated by a castle-sized framed mirror. The other plan requires a short walk across the semi-enclosed back patio leading to Chittum’s formal, 48-seat dining room, or, as the chef says, “a place where I can play with tweezers.” A former carriage house, it offers four- and six-course tasting menus and more complex cooking.
Chittum, 37, who also cooked at Equinox earlier in his career, is best known for his Italian and contemporary American fare. Marriage to a Greek native in 2011 found him adding another cuisine to his repertoire. Diners benefit from the union.
A course called “Taste” launches dinner and forces you to relinquish anything extraneous on the table to accommodate all the dishes: house-made pickles, burrata glossed with olive oil, the best tzatziki — scooped up with fennel seed crackers — in recent memory. As with the epic antipasti at the nearby Obelisk, this Greek picnic tempts you to ask for the rest of your meal packed to go because you’ve been over-served in the best way possible. The piece de resistance is a wedge of focaccia studded with roasted potato and black olives and showered with grated provolone. If Chittum ever has time for a food truck, that bread, available in the bar for $4 a square, could be his line-starter.
Other courses on the tasting menu are inspired by “Garden,” “Water” and “Pasture.”
Ease into the first category with ricotta gnocchi. Chittum makes the tender bites his own, first by caramelizing them, then by adding trumpet mushrooms, house-made mascarpone and fragrant and crisp garlic bread crumbs.
“Water” includes a fish dish paved with garlic, too. The crisp rockfish acquires balance in its arrangement with steamed clams, a perfect sunny-side up egg and celery “variations” (fresh leaves and glazed hearts).
Avgolemono — egg-lemon sauce or soup — is a star of traditional Greek cooking. Chittum does a Cinderella on the staple, transforming the simple comfort into an object of refinement. While you watch, servers pour rich chicken broth around a little island of shredded roast chicken, orzo, carrots and celery draped in hollandaise. The result is a “Pasture” with panache.
By now, you may be full. Yet you are still likely to polish off the bowl of Greek-style doughnuts splashed with orange blossom water that shows up with whatever dessert you’ve requested, Campari-spiked panna cotta being the most refreshing.
It takes a village to create a successful restaurant; Iron Gate is stacked with talent. The reason the cocktails are so seductive is because Jeff Faile, formerly of Fiola, helped create them. Among others, Hearts Alive — gin, grapefruit juice, Cointreau and Cappelletti Americano Rosso, the trendy wine-based aperitif — is sure to quicken the pulse of whoever orders the libation, which is made a little mysterious with chocolate bitters. And thanks to Brent Kroll, a diner doesn’t have to know Greek to cull something memorable from the wine list, because Kroll has done his homework. Thoughtfully, he offers two approaches, one for $35 for four pours, the other an upgrade to premium wines for just a 10-spot more. The only drawback is the sommelier’s rapid-fire delivery of his tasting notes. Kroll, formerly with Adour in the St. Regis, knows a lot; diners want to savor his smarts.
Grazing in the long front bar, which has a separate menu and fewer than 30 seats, is as enchanting as dining in the restaurant proper. Lunch in the former finds a gyro of the day, perhaps roasted pork, feta cheese and fried potatoes bound in thick, pillowy pita bread that’s smoky from a brush with the grill and comes with a fluff of tart greens. Dinner injects more choices and greater adventure, including a daily-changing “animal” (venison, turkey, lamb) roasted over a spit. Oysters Rockefeller take on a Greek accent with the addition of spiky shredded phyllo atop each baked oyster, and chewy gemelli pasta is strewn with braised rabbit. (I have yet to meet a pasta I don’t like here; the gemelli’s equal is spinach-green bigoli sparked with chilies, fragrant with garlic and sweet with clams.) If there’s a salad that represents the current ideal, it’s nutty farro tossed with dried cherries, sharp feta and hearty collard greens: a party of flavors that also happens to be good for us. The perfect finish for me is a slice of not-too-sweet walnut cake dusted with powdered sugar and circled with warm and honeyed diced pears.
In four visits, there have been only two disappointments among the dozens of sips and sups. Suffice it to say, the barley croutons in the beet salad resemble dirt clods, and the bite-size baklava, a send-off, leaves the taste of raw dough in its wake. Two unfortunate ideas, they are also two exceptions to an otherwise exceptional roster of dishes.
The original Iron Gate had mostly patina on its side. The new Iron Gate adds gravitas to the picture.