The chef known for slipping smoke into everything from cocktails to desserts has been tweaking his menu and dining room over the past eight months or so to make both more relaxed.
“The focus of fine dining is different from when I first started out,” says Victor Albisu of Del Campo, the sophisticated four-year-old South American grill near Chinatown. Fans who haven’t dropped by in a while are returning to find an edgier interior: acid-washed cowhides on the wall, ceramic green tile bordering the kitchen, chunky wood tables — “the restaurant I always wanted it to be,” says Albisu, 42, who also stripped linens from the picture.
Fear not. Del Campo’s popular octopus causa and skirt steak are still around, but they’ve been joined by a host of new dishes, some of which call attention to the influence of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in South America.
Cue the chirashi. The most alluring addition to the list is created from a loose round of rice decked out with scallops splashed with brown butter, and tuna and corvina ignited with the assertive fish marinade called “tiger’s milk.” Circling the fish-topped rice cake is an tangy ponzu sauce.
“Street noodles” brings a bowl of wiry noodles tossed with pieces of Peruvian-spiced chicken and singed bok choy, bright with what tastes like lime. A bite or two in, you get slapped with heat. It’s from rocoto, the chile pepper known for its apple shape, hairy leaves and habanero-like kick.
Proof that seafood isn’t the only way to make ceviche is a fresh appetizer featuring sliced beef tenderloin, its marinade spiked with horseradish. “For the table,” a collection of dishes meant to be shared, includes a smoked crab dip staged with two-bite arepas and avocado-chile relish, from which diners can make tiny sandwiches. A few new empanadas have joined the list, too. The crimped purses filled with duck confit and green chiles are particularly appealing. “Squeeze some lime on them first,” says a waiter, pointing to the grilled citrus on the plate. Sure enough, a few drops fairly electrify the empanadas, which are further enriched by a creamy aioli, green (and zesty) with shishito peppers.
The changes at Del Campo, where Faiz Ally and Marc Hennessy share the title of chef de cuisine, reflect a more mature boss. “It used to be about the fanciest plate, the most stunning presentation,” says Albisu, who now values consistency as much as any detail in his restaurant. These days, “it’s all about being memorable.”
The proof is on the chef’s revised menu.
The wall painted with an outsize bull skull doesn’t hurt, either.
777 I St. NW. 202-289-7377. delcampodc.com. Entrees, $26 to $110.