If you sent back every meal you ordered that arrived burned, your dinner at Del Campo would turn into a sleepover. Chef Victor Albisu regularly chars the ingredients at his new South American grill, doing his part to highlight the distinction between burned and burnt. “One is an elevation of simple cooking and one is a mistake,” Albisu says. Cooking techniques that rely heavily on smoke and open flames, when used correctly, can heighten flavors and produce more complex textures. We visited three D.C. restaurants that harness the power of extreme heat.
Kushi Izakaya and Sushi
465 K St. NW; 202-682-3123, Eatkushi.tumblr.com. (Mt. Vernon Square)
The menu at Kushi Izakaya and Sushi is anchored by skewered meat and vegetables prepared on a traditional kushiyaki (Japanese for “skewer grill”). What sets a kushiyaki apart from traditional grills, owner Darren Norris says, are “the shape and design of the grill itself. The long, narrow charcoal pit allows for a very intense heat.”
Within the grill, Kushi ignites high-quality, traditional Japanese oak binchotan charcoal, which is virtually smokeless and burns at over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and American hardwood charcoal. The high heat sears with few impurities and produces a rich, smoky flavor in meats and vegetables. One of the restaurant’s most popular items, the pork belly skewers ($4.50) crackle above the heat and arrive juicy and piping hot.
777 I St. NW; 202-289-7377, Delcampodc.com. (Gallery Place)
At Del Campo, even the cocktails are grilled. Among other smoky sips, the Chinatown newcomer serves a Limonada Sucia ($10) made from vodka and the juice of a fresh lemon that’s thrown on the grill just before it’s squeezed. The results are reminiscent of mezcal.
Albisu leans heavily on the South American tradition of asado (Spanish for “roasted”) he grew up with, serving an assortment of meats prepared over an open flame, including beef, lamb, sweetbreads, blood sausages and marrow. “I grill meat, but I don’t char it,” the Falls Church-raised chef says. “I prefer to char vegetables.”
Blackened beets, grilled corn and smoked tomatoes are evidence of this preoccupation with produce. They make for crispy complements to meats smoked over a bundle of smoldering herbs.
The Red Hen
1822 1st St. NW; 202-525-3021, Theredhendc.com.
At his new Bloomingdale trattoria, chef Michael Friedman cooks Italian-inspired eats on a custom grill from Michigan’s Grillworks Inc.
Red Hen burns a wood fire at a consistent 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, so the restaurant and the surrounding streets perpetually smell of campfire. “That smell didn’t exist in D.C. yet,” Friedman says proudly.
Red Hen’s fire pit is housed in a brick hearth within the open kitchen. It features several temperature zones that allow Friedman to control the heat intensity: The difference between a hard sear and a slow roast is a matter of inches.
Beyond the hearth, Friedman is working these types of flavors into dishes that are not traditionally smoked. The aioli, which makes its way onto the celebrated crostini ($5-$6) and dishes like roasted scallops with calamari, squid ink and chard ($19), is made using oil with hot embers dissolved in it.
“We’re constantly trying to find new ways to introduce that smoky flavor into dishes,” Friedman says. “What’s stopping me from throwing pecan shells on the fire or charring grapefruits for sorbet?”