Compass Rose points to a world of flavors

F ormer bartender and frequent traveler Rose Previte says she has always dreamed of “living above the shop” the way her grandfather, an Italian grocer, did in North Brunswick, N.J.

Former Jaleo chef and fellow globe-trotter JohnPaul Damato was, until recently, looking to open a fast-casual spot serving Middle Eastern fare.

The two found each other on Craigslist, where she was searching for someone to help her open a restaurant and he was looking for a consulting gig. “This looks good!” Damato recalls thinking of Previte’s post.

Girl meets boy, and guess what happens next? They plot a place to eat in Washington that combines their mutual love for travel and adventure in a three-story building where she can live on the top floor — with her husband.

This story isn’t about romance, but rather, a new dining diversion called Compass Rose. Named for the directional symbol on maps and compasses, and co-owned by local bar man Mike Schuster (The Star and Shamrock, Trusty’s Full Service, Barrel), the no-reservations restaurant offers a small menu with a world of flavors.

You might be suspicious of a kitchen that attempts multiple cuisines. It’s hard enough to get French or Chinese or Indian right without adding foreign elements to the equation. Damato is no newcomer to the stove, though, and to hear him talk about where he has been since he left the three area Jaleos in 2010 — Kenya, Amsterdam, Costa Rica, Belize — is to believe he’s comfortable serving dishes from far-flung locales.

The theme is street food and begins with “snacks.” Wild boar ribs, stacked on a lively slaw, hint of honey and pepper; they’re delicious, if Twiggy-thin. “Ever see a wild boar?” Damato asks. “They’re small and lean.” From Peru come yuca sticks, nubby fried dough offered with a creamy cheese dip, kicky with yellow chili pepper. Vegetable dips in a trio of vivid hues — beet-red, spinach-green and chickpea-beige — catch my eye but not my tongue. Two of the spreads prove oddly sweet; only the garlicky hummus disappears after it lands on the table.

The snack port of call I’m most eager to return to is Spain, no surprise, given the chef’s experience with Jaleo owner José Andrés. The country is represented by a cone of fried baby fish — smelt when I last tried them — made crisp and delicious with a dusting of chickpea and semolina flours. A squeeze of lemon and a dunk in aioli charge the eating and make short work of the fish.

“Seafood Stall” reinforces the restaurant’s market theme. Mackerel is slipped into a hoagie roll and slathered with harissa, which is a nod to Turkey, but the tasty fish deserves better bread. The black shells of steamed mussels look elegant against the gorgeous green bowl that ferries the seafood from basement kitchen to table. The mussels, with soft meat, gather in a broth aromatic with mint and bay leaf that’s meant to evoke Morocco.

Perusing the choices feels like wandering through alleys and side streets without the need for a passport. Next stop: “Vegetable and Bread Cart.” If there’s one dish you don’t want to miss here, it’s khachapuri, a barge of hot bread served with a sunny egg, white cheese and melted butter on top. Who knew that so few ingredients could make a diner so happy? The shareable is a tip of the hat to the country of Georgia, which Previte explored while her husband, NPR’s “Morning Edition” co-host David Greene, worked as the company’s Moscow bureau chief. (Also from Georgia: the two house wines by the glass, each $7.)

India’s popular salad, bhel puri chaat, is better at Masala Art across town, among other sources, but there’s no denying the appeal of a jungle of puffed rice, peanuts, tomato and mint arranged with the Italian red chicory, treviso, for use as scoops. Damato isn’t a purist.

Nor is he always looking abroad for inspiration. A category called “Meat Counter” includes a corn dog. “We ought to do some USA stuff,” the chef says he figured. His battered link is to the state fair staple what NYT is to TMZ. Here’s why: The center of the dog finds Italian fennel sausage, and its thin and fluffy cover relies on Anson Mills cornmeal. Dip the dog into some zingy house-made mustard, and I dare you not to smile.

Skewers of lamb and chicken are tamer kabobs than you’d find in Middle Eastern restaurants, but they’re still satisfying when eaten together with their accessories, lemon tahini in the case of the finely ground lamb and fluffy couscous when it comes to the chicken.

Located off bursting-at-the-seams 14th Street, Compass Rose is spread over two floors. The entrance leads to a narrow bar with tall tables hugging the opposite wall. If you need a lot of light or can’t hear well, keep walking, to a sunken dining room with a skylight and a partial view of the open kitchen. “The piazza,” as Previte calls it, reveals walls painted with an outsize compass rose and a sign for “Al’s Market,” a shout-out to Previte’s grandfather, the grocer who lived above his shop in New Jersey. Is that moss coming out of a few cracks? The green, fake but convincing, is intended to make diners “better feel the street” indoors, Previte says.

Launched in April, Compass Rose looks a lot older. The restaurant also tastes as if it’s been around the block. I mean both as compliments.

THE SCOOP

2 stars

Location: 1346 T St. NW. 202-506-4765.compassrosedc.com.

Open: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Prices: Snacks $6 to $10, main courses $10 to $18.

Sound check:
80 decibels/Must speak
with raised voice.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 1346 T St. NW. 202-506-4765.compassrosedc.com.

Open: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Prices: Snacks $6 to $10, main courses $10 to $18.

Sound check:
80 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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