This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Spring Dining Guide as No. 8 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
8. Unconventional Diner
Its name speaks volumes. Pick a popular diner staple, and David Deshaies has probably tweaked it to some degree of finer in his two-part valentine to comfort food. By day, customers stream into the self-service cafe for delicious breakfast sandwiches, sweets and a chickpea stew so vivid it appears to be auditioning for a magazine cover. Dinner unfolds on the left side of the restaurant, where booths the color of sea foam and walls decorated with graffiti create an eye-catching canvas for food that’s been informed by years of having worked for the masterful Michel Richard, may he RIP. We’re talking elegant, bite-size chicken pot pies; meatloaf that incorporates Gruyere cheese for succulence and Sriracha for a blaze of a glaze; and miso-brushed salmon served with a fan of buttery sliced zucchini. But most of all, we’re talking a chef at the top of his game, doing his own thing and making the masses happy.
2 1/2 stars
Unconventional Diner: 1207 Ninth St. NW. 202-847-0122. unconventionaldiner.com.
Open: Breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday, brunch weekends.
Prices: Breakfast items $7 to $12, lunch items $10 to $15, dinner items $16 to $27, brunch items $12 to $18.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10 new restaurants of 2018:
The following review was originally published March 28, 2018.
A creative chef breaks the rules at this all-day diner
A handful of ambitious restaurants are being mindful about the way diners prefer to eat, and, hallelujah, it’s not just about sharing plates anymore. Some places are broadening their weekday menus to erase the boundaries between breakfast and lunch (see Little Pearl on Capitol Hill), while others are pushing vegetables center stage (let me point you to Fancy Radish in the Atlas District, from the owners of the acclaimed Vedge in Philadelphia).
Unconventional Diner is the maiden creation of chef David Deshaies. He’s the longtime support system for the much-missed Michel Richard, and he’s stretching the definition of “diner” with a restaurant near the convention center that embraces two distinct possibilities. Here’s your opportunity to relive the chicken pot pies of your youth, only they’re prettier and in bite-size cubes, along with the fish sticks you never got in school: slender, fried in the thinnest batter and offered with saffron aioli. Perhaps the most imaginative way I’ve seen anyone use kale is to turn them into wispy chips, stripe them with cumin yogurt, turn up the heat with red pepper jelly and ... what’s to stop kale nachos from happening (then vanishing)?
By day, the right side of the Shaw restaurant is a sunny, self-service destination for baked goods, eye-openers including croissants, doughnuts and cupcakes but also model salads and sandwiches. Come evening, the left flank emerges as an eclectic dinner venue, with staff to take and deliver food that might read familiar but never tastes routine. Oh, there might be corn bread offered as a snack, but the muffins scream “pick me!” as much for the swipe of habanero butter flecked with honey crystals on the rim of the plate. Another carry-over from day to night (or right to left) is a chickpea stew. It tastes like a dip in the tropics, rich with coconut milk and red curry but also tangy from snipped sorrel. Optional toppings include nubby falafel that rank among the fluffiest around. Go for the upgrade, which is based on a recipe from the Lebanese grandmother of sous-chef Leena Ali, who followed her boss from Central Michel Richard, where he remains a partner.
The allure of the daytime script is not just variety, but the ability to get it, all of it, until 3 p.m. on weekdays. Torn between an egg sandwich and a pork bowl one day, I order (and relish) both dishes. The former features fluffy scrambled eggs that fit their glossy, griddled brioche bun to a T — nice detail, the shape — and enhancers of crisp bacon, cheddar cheese and what Deshaies calls “sexy sauce” (ketchup and mayonnaise whirled with cayenne and pickles). Superb in all ways, right down to the cloth napkin to erase any stains, the sandwich has stiff competition from a bowl of pulled pork and silky yellow peppers splayed on basmati rice with spark plugs of green olives and cilantro. The vibrant flavors summon a long-ago food memory. San Juan, I’m thinking.
Unconventional Diner benefits from a staff that has worked under Deshaies for years and masters much of what exits the kitchen. Fried chicken is worth ordering as much for its divine cheddar-chive biscuit and pepper-stoked “granny” gravy as for the brined half chicken, whispering of mustard and paprika in its golden coat. Good taste is a constant here, but so is presentation. I appreciate the little bottle of homemade hot sauce with the fried chicken and the pasta in alphabet shapes in the chef’s chicken soup, which also floats light, green-with-scallions matzoh balls.
Diner food isn’t known for its lightness, but keep the name of Deshaies’s restaurant in mind. Crisp, miso-glazed salmon with a buttery fan of sliced zucchini and a dot of lemon gel on the plate — a mouth-puckering condiment that can be used on fish or vegetable — is elegant in its simplicity. The gel plays the role of a brooch on the proverbial little black dress. You don’t need the accessory, but it helps make a bigger splash.
Lasagna with Swiss chard is generous and cheesy but a lesser draw amid the multitude of superior main courses. Indeed,
my quibbles are mostly on the sweet side, and during the day. Macarons are one-dimensional (where’s the light crackle?), and a vanilla “birthday” cupcake with sprinkles was a ringer for a supermarket version the afternoon I tried it.
The owner says a tight budget forced him to come up with his own interior look. A glance around Unconventional Diner shows him to be just as adept with a color wheel as with a chef’s knife. Check out the sea-foam booths in the 90-seat main dining room and the graffiti-like art that borrows from Keith Haring. As for the 45-seat day space, outfitted with comfy pink-orange banquettes, the wallpaper in the back seems to take its cue from Andy Warhol.
When Unconventional Diner was still a gleam in the chef’s eye, he told The Post, “I want to do
a diner, but I also want the freedom to do whatever I want.” Complete authority. When the clever Deshaies is cooking, I’ll buy that.