Going to a bar to eat canned seafood, for most Americans, sounds about as appealing as dining on airplane food. But at Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill, the canned fish — or tinned fish, as Europeans more artfully say — is not your grocery store’s water-packed Chicken of the Sea. It’s high-quality, flavorful sardines and tuna, packed with oil and spices, and perfect on a piece of crusty bread.
“I think Americans have — not an aversion, but I don’t think they have an understanding. I think they think of it as Bumblebee tuna,” says Donald Carlin, the restaurant’s co-owner along with his wife, Amy. But “there’s been a lot of acceptance of it already.”
Dyllan’s is the first restaurant in the District to experiment with a tinned fish bar, which is an up-and-coming trend (yes, really!). Sidle up to the bar for a glass of wine and some shareable bites of mackerel, sardine and squid, all imported from Spain and Portugal, atop baguettes you’ll want to slather in chef Neal Corman’s olive compound butter. If you’re feeling fancy, you can even order a $120 tin of cockles. The tiny bivalves are “definitely the caviar of that selection,” Carlin says. “When you see them in the can, they’re like little jewels.”
The tinned fish are a hit, but the rest of the menu is hit or miss. Dyllan’s is one of those places that tries to appeal to everyone but doesn’t have a strong point of view. It’s the kind of restaurant where you can start your dinner with maki rolls, a ceviche and an oyster stew pan roast before moving on to a main course of snapper with kimchi, or arctic char topped with pico de gallo, or cioppino, or a hanger steak with chimichurri, or a mushroom salad with farro and quinoa, and finish with toffee and chocolate dipped in whipped peanut butter.
The menu “takes the patron on a journey around different preparations or different cultures,” Corman says. Some of those preparations are stronger than others. The aforementioned char and snapper were served well by their accompaniments, but an appetizer crab cake was mushy, and a bruleed mango rice pudding did not come with the expected crackling, caramelized crust. An orange-habanero ceviche of lobster and shrimp was so sweet, it tasted like fruit salad with shellfish in it.
An area where Dyllan’s excels is its sides. I’d eat a bowlful of the restaurant’s miso mashed potatoes as a solo act, and one of my friends felt the same way about the avocado mac and cheese, which is green like its signature ingredient. They’re ordered separately and meant to be shared, “steakhouse-style,” says Corman, because “we didn’t want to do composed plates; it’s kind of antiquated.” (But one can cynically point out that getting guests to spend an extra $10 on a side is also an easy way to inflate the average diner’s check on a $30-ish piece of fish.)
Dyllan’s moved into the Georgetown space formerly occupied by Sea Catch, a historical building right alongside the canal. If it weren’t so mosquitoey in these waning days of summer, the patio would be a prime seat — and when the waterway is eventually refilled, it will be a great people-watching spot. Inside, the restaurant is dark and clubby, with wood and azure blue accents on an attractive bar. Another bar, in the pass-through between the host stand and the dining room, is a standing-room-only spot that Carlin calls “cold storage,” meant to evoke the refrigeration of the raw bar, where bountiful seafood platters are available. You can sip cocktails by beverage director Andra Johnson, whose list includes riffs on classics like an old-fashioned and a Manhattan, but with interesting ingredients such as the aperitif quinquina.
As for the restaurant’s namesake: Who is Dyllan-with-two-Ls? An old friend, an honored relative?
“The Dyllan name is the sort of everyman, everywoman, it’s sort of an all-encompassing name,” Carlin says. With its unique spelling, “It could be a boy, it could be a girl, it could be a place. We liked the mystery of that.”
Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill, 1054 31st NW. 202-470-6606. dyllansrawbargrill.com. Appetizers, $12 to $24; entrees, $21 to $58.