After focusing on fish for more than a decade, at restaurants as diverse as Pesce in Dupont Circle and Fujimar downtown, chef Raynold Mendizabal has in recent years steered his attention to meat, first at the burger joint Rogue States (now Black & Orange, and no longer his) and since December at Urban Butcher in Silver Spring.
Drive by his latest project, and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a second-hand furniture store, a suburban Miss Pixie’s. The front windows reveal a fleet of low sofas and mismatched chairs. Venture in to get the full scope of the chef’s most personal statement yet. Urban Butcher is a lounge, a bar, a restaurant and a facility with room for the Cuban-born chef to butcher whole animals, cure the parts and age them until they’re ready to eat.
Mendizabal, 43, is calling the lot “a playground for adults.”
Some of his handiwork requires carnivores to be patient; the prosciutto-style ham and American country ham won’t be available for consumption until late June, for instance. This is a lesson you might learn from the chef himself if he catches you peering into the glass-wrapped locker near his open kitchen and offers a look-see inside. The cool air and the funky fragrance of the hanging meats create a primal high.
Can the market bear one more house-churned sausage, another charcuterie plate? Urban Butcher makes a compelling case for a trend that shows little sign of fading. Mendizabal had me at lomo (cured pork loin), and again at his racy Spanish chorizo, then at tocino, or pork belly. Big chunks of grilled Italian bread, gherkins and mustard come with the cured meats; as with prime oysters, however, they need no distractions. Eating the pât é forestier puts me in mind of damp woods and earthy mushrooms: a daydream for $5 a slablette.
Mendizabal says he wrote his menu to “reflect everyone around here.” For sure, he casts a wide net. To my knowledge, no area kitchen is serving beef empanadas, Chinese barbecued pork ribs, grilled whole fish and penne with Bolognese. The variety sounds like a lot for one kitchen to master, and the truth is, Urban Butcher counts weak links in its repertoire.
His hot pockets are not among them. Those fluted empanadas are served with a green chimichurri that rolls over the tongue like a fireball. Hotheads will relish the sensation.
One of the more impressive conversation starters is the skateboard-size grilled flatbread with a little mound of lamb tartare and a smear of hummus. The raw meat is mixed to order with lemon, olives and a handful of dusky spices that smack of Morocco but don’t obscure the meat. Do as the Moroccans do and use the flatbread to eat the feast on top. “The bread is your fork and spoon,” the chef says.
Not all Mendizabal’s toys are on display. On the roof, he keeps a smoker, where he lets those Asian ribs spend the night after they’re brined in soy sauce. The snack shows up sweet with honey, jazzy with ginger and nuanced with black bean paste.
If you need something to balance the heft, refreshment comes by way of the chicory salad mixed with orange, dried cherries and blue cheese.
There are steaks, no surprise. Ruddy slices of hanger steak with a fist of french fries are most intriguing for the knob of smoked butter that melts into the hot meat. The fries, alas, are unevenly cooked. I have nothing but praise for the bavette — flap meat from the short loin and an underdog of beef — especially when it arrives with a casserole of buttery piped potatoes. The combination is all too easy to make disappear.
Meat dominates at Urban Butcher, but you should feel free to stray from it. Little blocks of glistening ahi tuna sharpened with fresh ginger remind me of the chef’s tenure at the very good Fujimar. Here, he displays the seviche in a Mason jar on shaved ice, a nice visual. Trout Milanese is treated as if it were thinly pounded veal, sheathed in bread crumbs and sauteed to a nice shade of gold. The fish benefits from a charred lemon wedge and a side of spicy greens on its plate.
But don’t roam just anywhere. A bite of the overspiced, cheese-topped ratatouille with outsize chunks of eggplant — among other vegetable-centered dishes — reinforces the restaurant’s name. It’s not Urban Garden.
My major beef with the restaurant is the pacing of the food. Some nights, big plates clink against small ones mere moments after the appetizers show up, which forces diners to race to finish the latter before the entrees cool off, or relinquish something before they’re ready. Urban Butcher is one of many restaurants guilty of sending out food in a time frame that’s more convenient for the kitchen than the customer.
The tall tables up front, backed by a big black chalkboard with a pig caricature, make a great destination for voyeurs and eavesdroppers. (Guilty on both counts, but that’s my job.) The clattery main dining room around the corner, all yellow concrete blocks and framed mirrors, is best summed up by a companion: “It looks like someone emptied out their garage.” In a later telephone conversation, the chef refers to the contents of the restaurant as “my house,” and he’s not kidding about their origin.
Like the oil painting of the gentleman and two ladies on the wall? At $2,520, “The Chateau” is the priciest item (and the only art for sale) on the menu.
Urban Butcher tries to be a lot of things to a lot of people. I appreciate his inclusiveness, but Mendizabal would be doing himself — and diners — a favor by trimming some of the excess.
I’d start with one of those couches.
8226 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.
Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
PRICES: Appetizers $4.50 to $14, large plates $12 to $26.
75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.