Lunching by natural light seems only appropriate at Green Almond, where chef and co-owner Cagla Onal-Urel produces salads, dips, sandwiches and entrees in which ingredients give the impression of moving from field to plate while barely passing through the kitchen. It’s an illusion, of course. Chickpeas are certainly pureed in a food processor. Eggs are, without a doubt, lowered into simmering water. And focaccia doughs are clearly molded into pans and baked in an oven. But the dishes that land in front of you are so informed by the flavor — and sometimes the shape — of their principal ingredients, you can’t help but feel close to the source.
If the name Onal-Urel sounds familiar, it should. She used to lead the kitchen at Etto , back when 2 Amys’s Peter Pastan still had a hand in the restaurant, when 14th Street still had every diner’s attention. Onal-Urel is Turkish native who ditched plans to pursue an MBA and, instead, went to cooking school and started working for Pastan at Obelisk, the Italian destination near Dupont Circle. She returned to her homeland to serve as executive chef at a pair of luxury hotels, but Pastan lured her back in 2012 to open Etto, where Onal-Urel’s smiling face seemed to hover just above a counter loaded down with her blistered peppers, ember-grilled eggplants and other elegant statements from the hearth.
Onal-Urel left Etto two years ago to focus on her own thing, an informal, homestyle business that would be part Italian, part Turkish and almost totally selfless. She started by selling prepared foods at farmers markets before partnering with Can Yurdagul, owner of Sushi Capitol, to open a bricks-and-mortar shop in the former Seasonal Pantry space in Shaw. Almost everything about the market and lunch counter is a symbol of a mother’s love: its focus on the midday meal; its honest, unfussy plates; and its modest ambitions, which allow Onal-Urel to break the invisible chains that keep chefs shackled to their restaurants, sacrificing any notion of a home life.
“The whole thing I created because of my daughter,” Onal-Urel says of her child, Su, aged 8. “If you’re working in restaurants, you’re missing family time.”
Green Almond Pantry is built for speed, starting with the chef’s recipes. Onal-Urel doesn’t have the luxury to tinker obsessively with her food, like those tweezer chefs with the Michelin stars and the borage blossoms strategically placed on their plates, like diamonds set in a ring. She builds dishes based on intuition, tradition, experience and the limited equipment crammed into her tiny, subterranean kitchen. That exquisite smoky eggplant dip with the double-barrel blast of acid? Its smokiness comes entirely from a single propane burner, while its sourness comes from red wine vinegar and lemon juice.
Onal-Urel almost apologizes for her methods, but I think her genius lies in her improvisation. In the early days, back when she was still using 2 Amys’ kitchen to prepare dishes for her farmers market stalls, Onal-Urel had to learn to work with the limited space allotted her. So when, for example, a case of cabbage would arrive, she had to devise ways to break it down fast and pack it away on the lone shelf devoted to her goods. Thus was born her spicy cabbage, a salad with meltingly tender leaves, whose heat creeps up so slowly it feels time-released.
The inspiration behind some of Onal-Urel’s dishes can be easily traced if you know a little about her background: There are the faint echoes of Etto (like the roasted rapini offset with a rich, decadent egg). There’s the direct import from Turkey (the quenelle-shaped red lentil balls, these crumbly vegan meatballs that leave behind a mushroom cloud of onion vapors). There’s even an homage to a grandfather who used to grill and peel peppers in the summertime (the simple, sublime roasted mini peppers). These plates can be ordered either at lunch or in takeout containers, the latter available until 7 p.m.
Personally, I prefer to pull up a stool — despite their metal seats that flatten your buns like a meat press — and take my meals at the counter. By some chance alignment in our schedules, I invited a few discriminating eaters to join me at Green Almond over the many weeks I scouted the shop. I hate to name-drop, but what the hell: They included Jeff Gordinier with Esquire; Jeanne McManus, the former Food editor for The Washington Post; and my Post colleague, global opinions writer Jason Rezaian , who has dined in more countries than anyone else I know. Best as I could tell, they all walked away fans.
I drop this boast because I feel this small, nagging need to support my next statement: I love almost everything about Green Almond. I love the seven-minute egg sandwich, in which a velvety yolk attempts (and fails) to muzzle the salt and light oiliness of the anchovies. I love the airy, crispy-edged focaccia that supports a large, tart wheel of green tomato. I love the feather-light chocolate cake. I love the Little Little in the Middle, a combo plate that allows you and a friend to sample a selection of Onal-Urel’s salads. I love the chef’s use of lemon and extra virgin olive oil, this double helix of fruit, which adds depth and lightness to the French lentil salad, the Christmas lima bean salad and the silky fava-bean dip.
Okay, sure, I don’t love everything. Onal-Urel’s hummus is a tasty but pasty spread that pales next to the smooth preparation at Little Sesame. I also don’t love this fear in the back of my mind, a worry that surfaces anytime I gush about a small, seemingly fragile place that may not be ready for a crush of new customers. I fear that I have just ruined this personal little lunch counter.
If you go
Green Almond Pantry
1314 9th St. NW, greenalmondpantry.com.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; market: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Mount Vernon Sq/7th St.-Convention Center, with a .3-mile walk to the lunch counter.
Prices: $5 to $16 for salads, dips, soups, sandwiches, entrees and desserts.