H Is for Happening
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Cheap and sushi are two concepts that really don't belong together. But the fact that Sticky Rice serves 14 kinds of nigiri and more than 20 rolls for less than $5.50 didn't make me want to run for the door. The newest arrival in the H Street corridor, a punk sushi joint out of Richmond, is untraditional in every way.
Rock music plays, and tattooed waiters with fashionable mullets work the dining room. In each of the two unisex bathrooms you can pick up a phone that calls the other bathroom, a strangely entertaining and potentially useful feature. On the menu are plenty of dishes for vegetarians and vegans, which helps keep the prices down, plus the signature bucket of tater tots that taste like the ones you ate in junior high school because that's exactly what they are. Sushi and tater tots? At Sticky Rice, it's considered a classic combination.
Independent, inexpensive and quirky, Sticky Rice embodies the vibe of many of the new restaurants on this stretch of H Street, also known as the Atlas District, which runs from 12th to 15th streets NE. Until recently, the area has been known mainly as a night-life hub. But the past year has seen the debut of the charmingly dive-y Belgian bistro Granville Moore's, the espresso and wine bar Sova and Sticky Rice. Within the next year, four more outlets are scheduled to open, including an Italian grocery and takeout, a taqueria and a yet-unnamed dessert bar.
H Street doesn't yet feel like a cohesive commercial district. Sticky Rice's shiny sign stands out on a strip where many of the storefronts are empty. It's reminiscent of New York's Williamsburg before it became a magnet for the $800-stroller set (good or bad, depending on which side of the Brooklyn wars you're on). True, these restaurants don't offer the artistically presented plates and million-dollar decor you find in Penn Quarter (the bills are also half what you might pay downtown). But they do have what even the celebrity chef outposts haven't yet managed: unfussy food served in a stylish setting with a price that's right for everyday dining out.
Take Granville Moore's. Originally a doctor's office, the space was gutted to make room for a bar and a tiny kitchen, but the owners didn't do much decorating. The lathe-and-plaster walls are original, as are the beams on the first floor. Low lighting, chalkboard menus and tables made of distressed wood from a Manassas farmhouse give the place a cozy feel.
Food wasn't originally a focus when Granville Moore's opened in August, says Teddy Folkman, co-owner and executive chef. The Belgian beer and menu of salads, sandwiches and mussels and fries were "nice to have." But the food took off, he says, and no wonder. I ordered the moules biere, steamed with poached fennel and leeks, hunks of local slab bacon, Chimay White beer and cream. The plump, meaty mussels from Prince Edward Island are the best I've eaten in Washington. The frites, twice fried and sprinkled with French sea salt and fresh herbs, could hold their own against any in town.
Word about the quality of Granville Moore's food is out. Business has tripled since November, Folkman says. Each week, with just four burners, two fryers, a 12-inch grill and a 12-inch flattop, the restaurant serves 500 pounds of mussels and 1,200 pounds of potatoes. In March the Food Network visited, ostensibly to film a show called "America Eats." It turned out that Folkman had been picked for a "throwdown" against celebrity chef Bobby Flay. (The episode, in which Folkman faces off with his popular blue cheese and bacon mussels, will air July 8 at 9 p.m.)
Granville Moore's low-key-vibe-meets-top-quality-food approach feels organic, but it is very much by design. The restaurant is part of night-life entrepreneur Joe Englert's growing H Street empire, which includes the Rock and Roll Hotel, the Argonaut and the Red and the Black.
Like Granville Moore's, the latter two were set up as bars but are trying to raise the quality of the food. The chicken pot pies at the Argonaut are made from scratch; by the end of the summer, Englert says, the Red and the Black will offer gourmet burgers with hand-ground beef, brioche buns, house-made pickles and house-made mayonnaise. "Adams Morgan is a club venue for kiddies," he says. "Chinatown is a corporate, artificial environment of restaurants. We are going to be a destination for adults that want homegrown restaurants."
Over the next 24 months, Englert plans to open up to five more restaurants. In November, he'll launch the H Street Country Club, a multi-use space that will include a casual taqueria and a full-service Mexican restaurant run by a "brand-name" chef. For next spring, he plans a 95-seat red-sauce Italian restaurant with a garden where the chef will grow his own produce and herbs. In the basement will be a dessert bar that offers handmade chocolates, coffee and a rotating menu of 15 to 20 desserts priced between $6 and $10. By 2010, Englert wants to add a brick-oven pizzeria and a barbecue joint.
Englert has a track record of successful development; he helped revive U Street and the south side of Dupont Circle. His commitment, plus $35 million in city money to improve infrastructure and transportation, has encouraged other entrepreneurs, such as Frank Hankins, to come to the neighborhood.
Hankins, a longtime coffee lover and Capitol Hill resident, worked for nearly a decade as a financial consultant on K Street. "I saw what Joe Englert was doing down here, and I knew it was a matter of time before H Street became a real restaurant and eating destination," he says. In November, he opened Sova, a two-floor espresso bar with eclectic decor that includes chandeliers, a pressed-tin ceiling and stylishly mismatched furniture. The coffee is from Chicago roaster Intelligentsia, and the cappuccinos resemble the ones you'd get in Italy rather than at Starbucks.
Sova is busiest in the afternoon and evening. In April, Hankins turned part of the second floor into a wine bar, where he offers 17 wines by the glass priced at $7 to $10. This summer, he says, he will begin serving simple salads and sandwiches for lunch and small plates of cheese, charcuterie and other appetizers at the wine bar.
The promise of the neighborhood also drew in David Mazza, 29, and Casey Taylor Patten, 28, who plan to open Taylor, a gourmet Italian grocery, takeout and delivery business in mid-September. The shop will sell Italian sandwiches, salads and create-your-own pasta salads mixing pastina with ingredients such as grape tomatoes, red onion, gorgonzola and arugula. The grocery side will serve cured meats and cheeses, bread from Patten's home town of Philadelphia, olive oils, vinegars, pastas and 30 wines under $30.
As the neighborhood continues to develop, Patten plans to build business by offering delivery throughout much of Northeast and Northwest Washington. "Delivery is tough in D.C., so we want to make it available. There will be no $25 minimum on orders," Patten says. "There are a few hurdles in the area, but we wanted to get in while it's early and not expensive."
One of those hurdles is crime. This month, after a string of fatal shootings in Northeast, police set up a controversial checkpoint in the 1400 block of Montello Avenue in the Trinidad neighborhood. The checkpoint, now discontinued, was five blocks from the hub of the H Street strip.
Englert says the dangers in the neighborhood are exaggerated. "A lot of the fears are unwarranted. The street is not the most beautiful in the world, but it's going to get better and better." Nonetheless, he and other restaurateurs have decided to hire security officers. Two to four officers will patrol the blocks from 12th to 15th streets on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
So far, fears aren't keeping the crowds away. At Sticky Rice on a recent Thursday, almost every table was filled and general manager Eric Bruner-Yang had been pulled off the floor to help turn out the special: soft tofu topped with bonito flakes and vegan eel sauce. The dish was conceived after an employee accidentally ordered a case of soft tofu, rather than the hard stuff that goes in many of Sticky Rice's dishes. "We're figuring it out as we go along," Bruner-Yang said with a laugh. "But so far, so good."