When critics pick apart food trucks, they often focus on congested streets and kitchen cleanliness — as if there weren’t a single public servant devoted to these issues — while glossing over the larger business-incubator implications of the mobile vendors. Mothership, chef Stephan Boillon’s brick-and-mortar expansion of his El Floridano truck, is a prime example of how a small street operator can, in short order, become a grounded and gratifying member of the community.
For years, Boillon had wanted to launch his own restaurant, but during the Great Recession, money was tighter than Christina Hendricks’s sheaths on “Mad Men,” even for a chef with experience. Boillon, former executive chef at Dino in Cleveland Park, had a long track record of helming restaurants in South Florida, his native stomping ground, and yet the best he could do was scrape together enough cash to launch his excellent lunch wagon in May 2010. It would become his gateway business to a full-service restaurant, with four walls and a restroom, which seems to be the only kind of eatery some consider legit.
“Without the truck,” Boillon says matter-of-factly, “I don’t think [Mothership] would have been possible.”
Maybe it’s the 3 Stars Brewing Co.’s Peppercorn Saison talking — I admit that I sucked down several of these citrusy, slightly spicy farmhouse ales — but already I can’t imagine the Park View neighborhood without Mothership, as if Boillon’s restaurant actually were a docking station where locals could seek refuge and refueling. Come to think of it, maybe the 87-seat Mothership is the gastronomic equivalent of the P-Funk Mothership, bringing a funky collision of ingredients to the people instead of a throbbing bassline and glitter costumes.
Boillon’s concise one-page menu is stuffed with surprises and oddities, most of them worth exposing your palate to. The chief oddity is the seared Louisiana sheepshead with sweet-and-sour lentils, which sadly I did not get a chance to order before deadline but mention here anyway for one reason: This monster fish has human-like teeth! It’s one step removed from eating Admiral Ackbar of “Return of the Jedi.”
I give Boillon considerable credit for his choice of fish, which while freaky in appearance, is affordable and, even better, sustainable. It takes guts to put such sea creatures as the sheepshead and blue catfish on the menu. The latter is an invasive species that has generated a wave of terror along the Potomac; Boillon takes his revenge on this beast in a bowl of asiago grits with tasso gravy, a rich and piquant preparation that contrasts well with the slightly muddy flavor of the fish. Rarely has managing intruders tasted so good.
The funk is found not just on the fish portion of the menu, either. Take a deep whiff of Boillon’s “spice route” chicken noodle soup, a bowl of glass noodles, huitlacoche and aromatic spices in a broth the color of dark chocolate. Think of it as the chef’s interpretation of pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup; its pile-up of sweet-sour-spicy flavors is both inscrutable and incandescent (although I think the glass noodles don’t ferry the broth as well as traditional pho strands would).
There is a restlessness to Boillon’s approach to cooking. He’s rarely satisfied to serve up a classic without some calculated variation. It could be his aforementioned chicken soup or his farro risotto (a satisfying vegetarian take, with Jerusalem artichokes and shallots, that shifts the essential nature of the silken dish to something more rustic and chewy) or even his steamed mussels (an umami-laden version in a lemongrass-dashi broth that seems to intensify the flavor of every bivalve).
Don’t get me wrong. Mothership is not just an iconoclastic punk, bent on blowing up all traditions. The place bows before the past, too, whether Boillon’s Florida-Caribbean roots or the Caribbean bakery that previously occupied this space on Georgia Avenue. Two of Mothership’s best dishes, in fact, are grounded in history. The crackly Cuban pizza’s flavors (including mustard bechamel!) expertly mimic those of the pressed sandwich. And the miniature Jamaican patties, juicy orbs of puff pastry filled with oxtail and bone marrow, are paired with a spicy guava sauce. The latter is like stoner food for gastronomes.
Boillon purposely hired a staff with marginal experience — bonus: many live right in Park View — and their on-the-job training can sometimes be felt in the homey, DIY dining room outfitted with communal tables and bar stools stenciled with the names of those who helped finance the place. My roast chicken was flabby and undercooked, its skin limp, while my wild boar bucatini was bone-deep delicious save for one thing: the high note of oregano perfume that dominated it. Then there’s the wine list, which is still in development; it can easily be sidestepped in favor of Mothership’s well-curated line of draft beers.
The wait staff and bar team are unfailingly friendly and attentive (no doubt because Boillon knows me), which only reinforces the neighborhood vibe. But here’s the bottom line: Mothership was born from the streets, and it exudes a gritty personality so different from many Washington restaurants. The city should make sure to nurture these kinds of projects, from food truck to full-service eatery.
3301 Georgia Ave. NW. 202-629-3034.
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30
to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday; 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday for brunch.
Nearest Metro station: Georgia Avenue, a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $7-$15.