Recipe for a racial tiff: Take a gregarious, fearless chef who's proven that a fine restaurant can succeed in black Washington, add a healthy portion of wit with a soupcon of in-your-face attitude, shake briskly in front of an oversensitive city, and voila, it's da storm over Da Sto.
Gillian Clark is creator and chef of Colorado Kitchen, the most ambitious restaurant in Ward 4, just east of Rock Creek Park. On a retail strip of Colorado Avenue that features the usual iron-grated liquor shop, laundromat and corner store stocked with everything bad for you, Clark has drawn a delightfully mixed crowd to a place she calls "Aunt Jemima's bandanna in three dimensions."
The food is "Betty Crocker gone to Cordon Bleu" -- a sophisticated meatloaf, a napoleon of Virginia ham and gruyere cheese, washed down with Orange Crush or cream soda. Clark puts a wink in every line of the menu.
But some of the food sophisticates of egullet.com, an online community for people who live to eat, were blind to Clark's wink when they heard she was opening a "little foodie retail store" a couple of doors from her restaurant and that the place would be called Da Sto. As in, "I'm goin' down to da sto."
The foodies lit into the chef.
"Is this hysterically tongue-in-cheek, intentionally obnoxious, or just stupid?" one chatter asked.
"How could five little letters so succinctly combine condescension, obliviousness and one-beat-behind trendiness?" added another.
Clark was accused of mocking speech patterns of her black neighbors in Brightwood Park. "It does not matter if the creator in question is black," one critic wrote. "It's still an unwise choice."
Some chatters defended Clark: "You've all missed the point," one writer said. "Gillian seems to be making her own Cosby-like statement on the times and the neighborhood."
Then Clark joined the fray. She didn't mince words. "I'm always interested to see a bunch of over-educated white people 'dissing' an over-educated black chef for calling her store (very tongue-in-cheek, I might add) a word she hears every day. None of my customers or employees who often say they're going to 'da sto' are ashamed of how they talk. It seems that only a small group of snooty white people attempting to be politically correct find fault with their pronunciation."
This did not calm matters. Some of the foodies were miffed that Clark assumed they were all white. Others said Clark had only proven herself condescending.
The exchange continued until last week, when Clark's appearance in an online chat disarmed her opposition. "I had my boxing gloves on," she told me. She didn't have to use them. Instead, she squelched her critics with charm and -- gasp! -- reason.
She recounted the grief she's gotten from blacks for "not being black enough" and "having too many white waitstaff," and from whites for decorating her restaurant with Aunt Jemima kitsch. "I have come to terms with Aunt Jemima," she wrote. "She should be poisoning these people. Instead she wants them to eat well."
Clark says she chose the name Da Sto to be funny. "It's just what it is. It was never meant to put people down. It's what it sounds like here."
People who live nearby have seen the sign on Da Sto for several weeks and have taken it in stride, though a few asked what language it was. Swedish?
"White people think they're supposed to have this reaction in defense of the black community," the chef says. "But the people who say 'da sto' don't see anything wrong with that. And the white people who criticize this are saying that there is something bad about saying it that way."
This is just too circular, too sensitive. But it's the kind of mini-furor we've come to expect in Washington, where dining is as self-segregated as church and radio.
"When we opened, black people wanted to know if this place is black-owned before they'd sit down," Clark says. Now her dining room is a leading indicator of the area's changing face.
All of which is just so much sociology to Clark, who insists that "I consider myself a chef who just happens to be black. Not a black chef."
Da Sto, which will feature aprons, baked goods, wine, fridge magnets and the kind of decor found in Clark's eatery, will open after Labor Day, and then, the owner notes proudly, "All of us will be saying 'Da Sto.' How's that for eliminating stereotypes?"