The physical menu at A Rake’s Progress in the boutique Line hotel in Adams Morgan says a lot about the priorities of the restaurant’s creator, chef Spike Gjerde. The 16-inch list is presented as if it were an important document; diners break a black wax seal to open it. There’s no need to ask a server how long the place has been open. “Day one hundred and forty two” revealed the script on the right side of the menu on my most recent visit in late June. To the left was a short poem by Richard Wilbur.
Seals, dates, verse: It’s a lot to absorb in the first moments of a meal, given that the epic dining room is competing for your attention, too. A Rake’s Progress unfolds on the second floor of the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, hence the cathedral-size, amber-and-white stained glass windows and seating that looks down on what is now the lobby of the Line. As Gjerde likes to say, “We’re a relatively small restaurant with a giant hole in it.” Not to mention a spiky chandelier fashioned from salvaged organ pipes, evidence of the designers’ secular, slightly irreverent approach to the setting.
Gjerde made his name in Baltimore with Woodberry Kitchen, a farm-forest-and-water-to-table restaurant so invested in the bounty of the Mid-Atlantic that it didn’t stock lemons. He was rewarded three years ago by the James Beard Foundation with the honor of best chef in the region. Washington food enthusiasts were understandably excited with the news that a more refined version of Woodberry Kitchen would be part of the Line’s dining amenities, along with two ground-floor restaurants from District chef Erik Bruner-Yang, Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English. At the helm of A Rake’s Progress day-to-day is Opie Crooks, 32, former chef de cuisine at Woodberry Kitchen.
Curiously (annoyingly?), hosts take guests around the distant perimeters of the oval expanse to get to their tables, passing the exhibition kitchen, even if the diners’ ultimate destination is mere steps from the host stand. I’ve encountered race tracks shorter than this journey.
On the bright side, passing other tables allows customers to get a sense of what they might like to order. A sampler of Virginia hams seems to be popular, based on all the folds of pink meat displayed on wooden boards I see. The aged hams range from mild and sweet (Edwards Virginia Smokehouse in Surry) to wonderfully complex (EcoFriendly Foods in Moneta) and are dropped off with warm cheese puffs, tender sweet potato biscuits and peach jam. Enjoy it with a group, if only to stop yourself from Hoovering the whole shebang.
Gjerde says he likes bread and worships toast, a passion shared with diners in the form of a raft of sliced warm bread placed in the center of the table. “It’s a combination of whole wheat and white spelt,” announces a server, who might go on to note that the butter seeping into the crevices comes from an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania and the salt is procured from brine wells in West Virginia. The result, like the pedigree, is impressive. Toast is also offered as a marvelous first course, where the bread is topped with rich bites of lobster that have been tossed with housemade green goddess dressing and garnished with minced chives — a lobster roll gone to polishing school.
Let the calendar be your guide on the menu. Spring introduced color to what had been more of a sepia picture at launch. I’m thinking now of dominoes of lush seared tuna, a scarlet fan set against a shimmering pool of green garlic butter and delicate fried squash blossoms. Another harbinger of the season are soft-shell crabs, simply dusted with flour and cornstarch and fried so that the pure sweetness of the seafood shines. The crisp seafood isn’t immediately obvious, covered as it is with bright mint and basil. But the herbs, together with a subtly sweet rhubarb sauce, make for one of the lightest and brightest soft-shells I’ve encountered this season.
The appetizer that has everyone whipping out their phones is a salad of asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries coaxed into a circle, its center white with a froth of buttermilk speckled with a crumble of black walnuts and puffed buckwheat. The idea is to dress a bit of the vivid salad with a spoonful of tangy foam and go mmmmm.
From the pride and joy of Gjedre’s custom kitchen — a wood-stoked hearth built for grilling, roasting and smoking — come very good lamb shoulder served with minty green dumplings; duck presented in thick slices and in a confit with fried rice, spiked with gochujang, the “it” condiment; and trout “on a log.” The last dish exits the kitchen on a slice of wood that’s been placed in the hearth until it catches fire; the result, a smoldering vehicle for the fish, leaves a campfire essence in its wake.
Among the large plates meant for sharing is pleasing grilled monkfish tail dappled with peanut romesco. While fish and seafood are chief among the lures here, scallops are ill-served by soft pads of squash puree and oddly chewy cavatelli.
Pastry chefs Amanda Cook and Beth Bosmeny do sweet things with fruit in particular. Witness their ode to strawberries, a half-wreath composed of pâté de fruit and frozen yogurt in the signature flavor, along with dollops of goat cheese mousse. More elevated is the “Eiffel” trifle, a parfait glass layered with lemon verbena cream, grilled peaches, lemon-basil mousse and more puffed buckwheat groats, which crackle like Rice Krispies. Sorbets come in such intriguing flavors as blueberry-clove and verjus-lavender-ginger. After we casually mention that a member of the party is about to move to town, his dessert plate arrives with “Welcome to the neighborhood” written in chocolate.
The bar, which runs along one side of the room, accords drinks the same respect the kitchen gives dishes. The cocktail list is the length of a novella, but name a favorite drink or spirit, and the servers can consult with the bartenders to come up with something satisfying. Much to my taste right now is Pine Barrens: gin, a cranberry-rosemary shrub and sparkling wine (from Virginia, natch) served in a frosted metal julep cup. A reminder that you’re in a hotel, the wine list is a collection of bottles from around the world, many of them priced as if a lottery winner were picking up the tab.
I did not relish every visit before Day 142. Salt is sometimes deployed with abandon, the cavernous room lends itself to clatter, and servers have been known to show up with seemingly every dish at once. Still, if some of the restaurant’s precious touches lead to eye rolls, there’s no denying the owner’s commitment to both his sources and his customers. Gjerde, after all, found a “citrus enthusiast” in New Jersey to provide him with homegrown yuzu, pink lemons and kaffir limes.
The way the chef sees it, “One person’s twee is another person’s thoughtful detail.”
1770 Euclid St. NW.
Open: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $15 to $68 (for a seafood tower), main courses $28 to $165 (rib-eye to share).
Sound check: 83 decibels / Extremely loud.