Jeff Tunks and his partners at Passion Food Hospitality weren’t actively looking to add to their collection of seven Washington-area restaurants this year. But when a broker invited the chef and his colleagues to look at a restaurant space in Penn Quarter that had been abandoned before a single diner had been served there, the group bit. The team inherited in the transaction millwork, a square bar, cage-y lighting and “the most seats with the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen,” says Tunks of his new, 200-seat attraction, Penn Commons.
Sound familiar? Penn Commons is a spinoff of District Commons in Foggy Bottom, with much on the menu to bridge the two establishments: seafood chowder, brick-pressed chicken and a 10 p.m. “Farm Bell,” a family meal announced by the ringing of a dinner bell in the dining room.
Given its more spacious kitchen, District Commons whips up some of what Penn Commons serves, including stocks, soups and ice cream, says Tunks.
But the new branch isn’t a complete copycat. The original eats at Penn Commons include crescent-shaped hand pies, stuffed with pulled pork and dropped off in metal cradles. Their filling is tamer than I expected, easily altered by dipping the pie into a racy sauce of mustard and vinegar.
A smoother launch at lunch or dinner: a trio of dips, served in glass jars, for $13. Among the combinations you’ll want to slather on grilled bread are roasted eggplant brightened with pesto, ricotta cheese invigorated with mint and red chili pepper and the lush steak tartare, hit with Sriracha.
Texas-style chili — “NO BEANS,” screams the menu — comes with a spicy kick that can be balanced with garnishes of sour cream and grated Cheddar. Too bad the accompanying cornbread is sweet enough to qualify as dessert. Another letdown are the raw oysters, clean as can be on their bed of crushed ice, but void of any brininess. The accompanying lemon wedge may get a workout.
A neighbor (and sibling) to Burger Tap & Shake, District Commons doesn’t flip burgers. Penn Commons does. The Twelve Buck Chuck hamburger spoofs a popular cheap red wine. Beef is replaced by lemony ground chicken, and craggy falafel with feta cheese and pickled vegetables, in the tasty “High Thigh” and “Haight-Ashbury,” respectively.
All sandwiches arrive with a cone of pale golden french fries, all are better with a glass of rosé from New York state and all should fuel the hunger of the concert and sports fans that Tunks and company hope to attract from their new neighbor, Verizon Center.
700 Sixth St. NW. 202-905-2999. www.penncommonsdc.com. Dinner entrees, $14 to $32.