"Don't look at the columns," said chef/owner Michael Schlow, on a tour of what will soon become Tico, his Latin-influenced American restaurant on 14th Street NW. Construction is underway, and the columns, which have been painted with an abstraction in warm colors, are not to his liking. "It just doesn't fit ... I want the place to feel like it's been here a long time."
Luckily, his wife, Adrienne Schlow, is a mixed-media artist and, for Schlow, a miracle worker. "She's coming down to fix this," he said, and in a restaurant where Schlow has been involved in the smallest details -- from hand-designing the layout of the kitchen, to selecting the perfect tables, handmade in Arizona -- he plans to cede absolute creative control to his wife.
"She doesn't tell me what to do [in the kitchen], and I don't tell her what to do with the art," Schlow said.
Tico, expected to open in early June, will be Schlow's grand debut in D.C. The chef, a James Beard Award winner, is well-known in New England, where he has six restaurants in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Like other notable chefs from elsewhere -- Le Diplomate's Stephen Starr, Osteria Morini's Michael White -- he's come to stake his claim in the District.
Schlow has family in Silver Spring, and visited D.C. frequently as a kid. He also began to develop his professional career here, working for Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate: "I always looked up to him," Schlow said. He had been eager to return to D.C. and found space in the Louis complex at 1926 14th St. NW -- right next to the Trader Joe's -- through a frequent patron of his Boston restaurants, who also happened to work for the building's developer, JBG.
"This is not an opportunity for me to drop off a restaurant and go back to Boston," he said. "If this is successful, I will absolutely do more restaurants here."
And on a street where food has become the focus, Schlow's laid-back attitude may be seen as a refreshing change. Tico, a duplicate of his Boston restaurant of the same name, aims to be a neighborhood gathering place for simple American food with a Latin twist: Think fried chicken tacos, or breaded manchego with spicy pomegranate dip in place of mozzarella sticks.
"Nothing is authentic," Schlow said. The menu was inspired by his travels throughout Spain and Latin America, but also through the mother of all invention: necessity, of course.
"A lot of the dishes were bred out of me having nothing in my house to eat," he said. A shredded cabbage salad with a spicy salsa verde that he says is among the most popular dishes on Tico's menu was the result of some experimentation when he was faced with a near-empty fridge.
"Acid, salt, chilies. As a chef, that's what I want," Schlow said. "It's food with full flavor that won't challenge you too much."
The restaurant, which will seat 140, will open with dinner, and add brunch and lunch later on. It won't be able to have outdoor seating right away, but all of the front windows open wide, which will give patrons the feeling of being outdoors. The bar will feature more than 140 tequilas. George Rodrigues, formerly of Tico Boston, has moved down to run the D.C. kitchen. While the most popular dishes on Tico's menu will migrate here with him, he and Schlow are also working on adding more ceviches, and creating dishes that utilize ingredients from the mid-Atlantic, such as Maryland crabs.
Most guests will have a view of the open kitchen in the back. Schlow, who says he is fascinated by efficiency, designs all of the kitchens in his restaurants -- "A painstaking, fun love affair," he said. His wife's talents have clued him in to the artistic world, and he hopes that he'll get a chance to showcase other local D.C. artists in the space as well.
And for those weary of the din of 14th Street's restaurants, Schlow is looking out for you: He has paid special attention to the restaurant's acoustics, and is working to ensure that the soundproofing of the restaurant will allow guests to speak in their normal voices. "I don't want anyone to have a conversation where you can't hear without screaming at each other," he said.
Tico, 1926 14th St. NW. Expected opening: June.