Tom Sietsema: At the Partisan in Penn Quarter, cured meats are just part of formula

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Ed Witt as chef de cuisine. His correct title is chef of the Partisan.

Readers will love the Partisan, the meaty new Penn Quarter restaurant from the prolific Neighborhood Restaurant Group, where diners sit down to a fan of menus. There’s one for cocktails, another for bottles of wine, a third for charcuterie and a fourth that comes with spiral rings and seven page-turning categories. The most novel format is that list of 30-plus meats, arranged as if they were wines under headings including “herbal + floral,” “rich + smooth” and “earthy.” The long check-off sheet resembles those used by sushi restaurants, pencil included.

Be sure to mark the bresaola cured with a Thai treasure chest of ginger, jalapeño and kaffir lime leaves, one of the “bright” selections and some of the breeziest eating around. Hot heads have plenty to amuse them, as well. “Red Menace,” a mash of pork belly and Calabrian chilies, is a spreadable fire that lives up to its beastly name. For balance, sign up for the garlicky kielbasa and the ghostly white lardo, sheets of pork fat flecked with rosemary. Meanwhile, liverwurst is a must for fans of Braunschweiger, the soft and slightly spicy smoked liverwurst that constituted more than a few lunches of my Minnesota youth. Partisan gives the original an upgrade with bacon in the blend and sea salt on the surface.

The source of the primal pleasure is Red Apron, a butcher shop that started in the back of Tallula restaurant in Arlington in 2008 and ended up in a production facility near Union Market in Northeast Washington two years ago. There are now three Red Apron outlets, one of which is attached to the Partisan and is open for breakfast, lunch and early dinner. The muse behind the recipes is Nathan Anda, who has steeped himself in his craft in recent years, trekking to Iowa, San Francisco and Italy for a workshop, an internship and tours of butcher shops. The chef’s wares start, as does all good eating, with choice building blocks. Cue the Animal Welfare Approved pigs from North Carolina and the beef, some from ancient breeds, from family farms in Maryland and Virginia.

The Partisan, its name a nod to both politics and strong opinions, covers all the bases. No detail appears to have escaped the attention of the restaurant’s principals.

With the charcuterie comes an Italian bread, tigelle, that resembles an English muffin and is pressed on iron grills that Anda procured abroad. A hint of richness in the bread comes from its brush with lard.

Ringing the ceiling of the narrow front dining room is a display of about 300 salamis in different stages of curing. No mere decoration, the ropes of tagged and dated sausage eventually end up in the cooking.

Last but far from least, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group employs a SWAT team of liquid talent headed up by three wise guys — Jeff Faile, Brent Kroll and Greg Engert — who need no introduction to serious imbibers of cocktails, wine and beer, respectively. I’m particularly drawn to Faile’s rye- and mezcal-powered “Sailin’ On,” each sip of which resonates with chili oil and chocolate bitters, and Kroll’s suggestion one night to pair dinner with a complex 2010 Tommasi Ripasso Valpolicella, or what he calls a “baby Amarone,” for $44. For his part, Engert offers nearly 20 craft beers (featuring meat-friendly sour ales) on tap, on top of 50 suds by the bottle or can.

Together, the trio make for a bar in the back, dramatic with an illuminated wall of spirits, that sees more action than the Tidal Basin in April. Bring business cards.

A word of caution. Go easy on the charcuterie and the bread, both easy to fill up on. Anda and his colleague, Partisan chef Ed Witt, once of 701 restaurant, have created dishes that embrace the mainstream (whole fish, bone-in rib-eye, a beef burger with chorizo) but also venture into adventurous terrain. Pig head cooked for half a day and delivered with hot and sweet pickled peppers is a $75 head-turner that can feed half a dozen carnivores. Ditto the bollito misto, an homage to innards — heart, belly, marrow, pickled tongue — and an Italian classic.

You may not have to order a dish to try it. The reaction to some of the food here is so strong, it compels complete strangers to share tastes. On second thought, maybe the closely packed tables and adult beverages had something to do with the exchanges I had one night in the front dining room, when a generous soul to my right proffered french fries cooked in beef fat and the birthday girl to my left encouraged me to try her fried chicken, crackling beneath its rub of lemon zest and toasted coriander and fennel seeds.

My contribution to the impromptu give-and-take, partridge with cucumber yogurt and sumac-tinted onions, made me feel guilty; the bird I was passing around was so rare, it could have flown off my plate. The $20 small plate was one of the few dishes to return to the kitchen unfinished. (Rockfish tartare in a parfait with tomatillo puree and puffed farro is also a lesser effort.)

The dish I’m most eager to return for fuses Italy with Korea. Tender carrot fusilli tossed with fiery kimchi sausage is one of those brilliant combinations that keeps forks flying. Before serving, a slaw of cucumbers, carrots, salted chilies and cilantro adds a cool edge to the bowl. A runner-up for my affections is the hearty Bolognese enriched with beef heart ragout and lardo in the pasta’s toasted baguette crumbs. Servers who can rhapsodize about the many choices as if they were sous-chefs make for a merrier night, too.

You may need to pause from the frenzy of meat and acquaint yourself with something light. Consider langoustines seasoned with lemon zest and chopped parsley.

If vegetarians aren’t welcomed with open arms at the Partisan, they nevertheless have some lip-smacking options. Shredded Brussels sprouts are spread around their plate like a hash, each bite wicked with horseradish and mustard. The kitchen also mounts roasted mushrooms, young kale and shaved salsify on goat cheese made in-house, a composition both filling and fabulous after a splash of vinaigrette. Fennel with citrus and arugula will be a familiar sight to regular restaurant-goers, but the salad, crunchy with pistachios, is also a welcome break from all the pork, beef and birds on the menu.

Sweets call to our junior selves. They also tilt decadent. Snickers terrine, for instance, is built from peanut butter cheesecake and a chocolate glaze. Lemon meringue “pie” is actually a dense eclair assembled with marshmallow fluff and graham cracker crumbs. The best of the selection may be the fried apple pie, served warm with vanilla bean ice cream and a caramel sauce infused with (what else?) bacon and poured on the confection at the table. Hostess can only dream.

I walked into the Partisan thinking I’d already had my fill of charcuterie, at least in Washington, where every other new restaurant feels an obligation to put sliced sausages on its menu. I left the place thankful for a craftsman such as Anda and a restaurant that not only grasps the meat of the matter, but also makes this city a richer place to eat.

2.5 stars

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THE SCOOP

Location: 709 D St. NW. 202-524-5322.thepartisandc.com.

Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Bar opens at 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Prices: Charcuterie selections $4 to $6, small plates $6 to $30, large plates $15 to $35.

Sound check: 78 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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