“Only 30 months ago,” says the chef, sounding relieved.
The nearly 5,000-square-foot site was initially conceived as a four-story condominium, which explains Baby Wale’s deep dining room walled in brick and lofty ceiling ending with sky lights. The vastness would swallow up diners were it not for the deft design touches inserted here and there.
Instead of installing a linear bar, which would emphasize its expanse, Baby Wale’s planners gave the long counter some curves and warmed up its front with reclaimed doors and recessed lighting. Not only does the snaky stretch look better, it can accommodate at multiple junctures small groups where no one has to lean in to talk. The second-floor mezzanine, meanwhile, is just waiting for an office party or celebration to fill it.
Hovering over the dining room is an enormous light fixture that was moved into Baby Wale as a live tree, leaves and all. Left to dry from on high, the foliage has been replaced by strings of white lights in the many fine branches. Throw in some go-go music from the chef’s personal collection, and you’ve got a jazzy new watering hole to add to your playlist.
Just a single sheet of paper, the menu covers a lot of turf. Anyone who has had a taste of Power’s résumé will recognize a number of dishes, including lumpia, the Filipino equivalent of spring rolls. A holdover from the original Corduroy in the Sheraton Four Points Hotel downtown, the long wands, filled with ground pork and fried to a fine crunch, make first-rate grazing. Baby Wale’s mozzarella “porcupine” uses a technique refined by the acclaimed Michel Richard, for whom Power cooked in Baltimore and Philadelphia as well as at Richard’s signature Michel Richard Citronelle Washington. The spiky appetizer — shredded phyllo encasing buffalo mozzarella — is set on a plate with two bright sauces, one basil, the other tomato, both intriguing for their clarity.
Pupusas sandwiched with duck confit are flat in all senses of the word; the accompanying slaw is also less than electric. On the other hand, a Caesar salad sports an appropriate tang.
Soups help get the party started, and every $7 bowl I’ve sampled is a score. Chilled pureed eggplant gets a lashing of intense olive oil, while charred tomato soup gets its kick from chipotle and its heft from an unlikely source: creamy mashed potatoes.
Baby Wale also makes a lovely lobster salad. It’s lightly bound with chervil mayonnaise and arrives in a toasted bun. Alas, the sandwich’s skinny french fries dusted with fresh herbs amounts to a Potemkin village. Beneath the garnish are frozen potatoes. Et tu, Tom?
There are only a few true main dishes. One is a chicken for two that’s roasted to order and requires 45 minutes to get to the table. Brined before it hits the heat in garlic, thyme, black peppercorns and lemon peel, the three-pounder makes fabulous eating, both in the restaurant and at home at midnight. (Hey, I’ll admit such.) Another example, crisp-skinned salmon set on corn seasoned with dashi, the Japanese broth, is a dish that could be served at Corduroy and no one would arch an eyebrow.
“It’s hard not to use what you’ve been taught,” says Power of his tool kit.
For the moment, there are only cookies for dessert. They’re served in the manner of Chinese dim sum, from a tray arranged with oatmeal, chocolate chip and sugar cookies, some still warm from the oven. The only thing missing from the picture is a glass of cold milk.
Power’s offerings, which extend to hot dogs and pepperoni pizza, are ferried from kitchen to diner by servers whose black uniforms match their sober, slightly shy demeanors. Guys, lighten up a little!
The wine list could use some unburdening as well. The selection, including esteemed mersaults and pinot noirs, reads out of place (and out of touch) for an establishment where the chow is served on institutional metal plates. Is anyone munching on a grilled cheese sandwich really going to go for a bottle of wine that costs $66, the average here?
Power says he’s commuting between Baby Wale and Corduroy via the back doors of the neighboring restaurants. Eventually, his longtime second, Paul Gomes, will take over the reins of the new place.
It took awhile for Power to bring Baby Wale to life. But his is a pattern a lot of diners should look good in.
Coming next week: The Annual Fall Dining Guide.