No more playing it safe for Ryan Ratino. Now that the chef has his own place on 14th Street NW, he says he’s been cooking “outside the box we were put in at Ripple,” the arty neighborhood draw in Cleveland Park that sadly went dark in June.
Don’t misunderstand. The eager-to-please Ratino, 27, is grateful for the support he got at Ripple. But to make regulars happy in his previous post, he knew he had to offer a cheese plate and beef short ribs.
Bresca, in contrast, invites you to start dinner with a snack of sweet and spicy squab, claws included, that wouldn’t look out of place in “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s reminder that fright can alight from the everyday. Fear not, though, because the starter is a force for good. The wing is Nashville-hot with a dehydrated spice blend that considers cayenne, garlic and tomato, while the thigh is glazed with mulberry jam. Game on, chicken wings!
Bresca isn’t as fringe as some of the better-known envelope-pushers around Washington — no one will be exhaling dragon smoke, as at Minibar by José Andrés — but its chef sprinkles throughout his menu enough curiosities that prompt strangers to ask what you ordered, then follow your lead when they get your thumbs up.
Yes, we tell the couple at the next table, you’ll want to get the foie gras PB&J. The shareable first course shows up as a pink disk of cured duck liver (standing in for peanut butter) and cubes of shimmering Concord grape jelly on a plate that turns out to be a lid hiding warm madeleines. Some people swab the fragrant shell-shaped cakes with a bit of the foie gras; other diners chase cold with hot. Either strategy lets you play with your food and return, however fleetingly, to a time when babysitters and allowances ruled your life.
A similar sense of surprise (and delight) accompanies the scallop crudo, presented under a canopy of thinly sliced Asian pears that could easily pass for overlapping slivers of scallops until you poke at the firm, crisp fruit. Beneath the ivory cover, dusted with black lime, are dewy Nantucket scallops. “The cool thing about the scallop dish is the abductor muscle used to make the aioli,” dots of which dress the surface of the small plate, says a well-informed server. (The muscle is generally tossed; like a lot of chefs, Ratino tries not to waste anything.)
Bresca translates from Spanish to “honeycomb,” imagery revealed throughout the intimate restaurant, whose host stand and a screen in back are in a honeycomb design. On the menu, the size of the hexagon before a group of dishes indicates whether they’re snacks, medium plates or platters.
While you’re mulling your options, shots of something delightful are offered. One night, everybody warmed up to a thimble of vodka flavored with lemon verbena tea, hibiscus and cinnamon. The gratis sips tend to lead to paid ones. The award for best design goes to the tart Bee’s Knees, charmingly presented in a glass-and-stainless steel cup in the shape of a bee. More to my taste, however, is the gin-forward Hanky Panky redolent of vermouth and fernet, the bitter herbal liqueur.
Ratino’s modernist approach and French training don’t trump the Ohio native’s Italian background. His pastas, for instance, are indulgences on par with those of Fabio Trabocchi of the esteemed Fiola and Fiola Mare. Agnolotti stuffed with roasted chestnuts, softened in the company of butter and milk, shares a bowl with bites of braised rabbit and sunchoke. Even headier is a scroll of linguine ennobled with truffles, butter and soft lobes of sea urchin, an ingredient so common now, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it at Denny’s.
If decadence were a crime, Ratino would get at least a few years.
Sufficient dishes show him not to be a complete heavy. The dish I crave more than any other is olive-oil-poached halibut, a fish I tend to think of as boring, but in the hands of Ratino it keeps my attention. First brined, the halibut floats on a vadouvan-charged chowder of coconut milk and tiny mussels. Garnish comes courtesy of thin orange noodles fashioned from squash. In a word, fin-tastic.
Pineapple-carrot salad sounds more like a side dish than something to sustain a vegetarian. But when it comes to the table, everyone wants in on the edible landscape of carrot ribbons, carrot puree and diced spiced pineapple. The vegetables and fruit provide cover for the grain salad in the middle of the plate, streaked with curry oil and broken up here and there with a dab of date puree. (The chef loves his sweet notes, sometimes to the detriment of a dish, and a few ideas, including this one, could use instructions on how to tackle them. And while I’m nitpicking, there are tastier octopus dishes just about everywhere.)
The topography, er, salad, is best eaten in the company of the richer dishes on the list, including the excellent veal breast, sauced with cognac, peppercorns and veal jus and bordered with ribbons of pickled kohlrabi. To create the dish, the chef uses koji, the same mold used to make soy sauce and sake, to simulate the mineral flavor of dry-aging. The veal, fatty like pork belly, comes with pickled apples the size of Barbie’s golf balls, ideal foils to the succulent flesh.
Ratino likes to personally introduce his platters, multipart entrees that currently include duck offered several ways: sliced honey-glazed breast, coins of sausage that rely on foie gras and warm spices and (squeam alert) duck head. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; the cheek meat, akin to stringy roast beef, is choice eating. The head is served as much to signal freshness as to introduce newbies to parts unknown. Adding to the decadence are beignets cooked in duck fat, apple butter that’s as light as mousse and a casserole of tangy red cabbage and tender spaetzle under an emulsion of nutty-flavored Comte cheese. Surveying the spread, a companion cries, “He wants to kill us!” With kindness, I’d like to think, and generosity.
The menu descriptions don’t begin to prepare a diner for the complexity of what’s to come, a fact that’s true through dessert. Take the banana pudding, made from fruit that’s roasted, bundled in plastic wrap and allowed to ferment. The addition of cream and cream cheese to the bananas makes for a confection similar to a semifreddo in texture; before you dig in, a server shaves a bar of chocolate over the dish. The best ending is a variation on the ambrosia Ratino served at Ripple: a dome of meringue, spiked with pink peppercorns, atop a loose soup of pineapple, passion fruit, mango and coconut tapioca.
Bresca has the feel of a neighborhood restaurant and the flavor of something special. It might not be your first choice for introducing conservative eaters to the wonders of contemporary American cuisine. But it’s an inviting place to watch a chef at work and imagine where he might go in the years ahead.
Up, up and away, I suspect.
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1906 14th St. NW.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers and medium plates $7 to $25, main courses to share $63 to $68.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.