The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Spring Guide.
Spring has sprung, which means Johnny Spero is serving white asparagus in a black cloak (courtesy of garum, or fermented fish sauce). Such intrigue should come as no surprise, given the chef’s history. Before settling in Georgetown with a dining room that borrows from the minimalism and spare beauty of Japan and Denmark, the young chef worked at some of the most forward-thinking restaurants in the world, including Noma in Copenhagen, Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque region and Minibar by José Andrés in Washington. Compositions are described in just a few words. “Buttermilk/Dill/Dried Scallop” translates to soft slices of raw scallop and crisp panes of dried scallop on a pool of buttermilk tinted with fresh dill. The crudo is a keeper, as is Spero’s hamburger, an homage to multiple fast-food sources. Dishes “to share” are designed for the expense-account crowd. A plate of fanned duck, dusted with fennel pollen and served with shaved fennel strewn with marigolds, is lots to like, but also $100. Not every combination works, but you are likely to drink well — “The Business” is a refresher mixed from gin, honey and lemon — and the addition of an enclosed patio since winter means more space for more open minds.
Reverie: 3201 Cherry Hill Lane NW. 202-808-2952. reveriedc.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
Prices: Dinner $18 to $32.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Feb. 27, 2019.
At Reverie, Johnny Spero lets diners in on his daydreams, for better or worse
Johnny Spero has a résumé many other chefs his age can only dream about. Reading his list of credits, including apprenticeships at Noma in Copenhagen and Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque region, rouses wanderlust and incites envy. Closer to home, Spero, 33, has rubbed shoulders with important chefs at Komi, the much-missed Town House in Chilhowie, Va., and Minibar by José Andrés, where, during Spero’s tenure as executive sous chef, I had as thrilling a roller-coaster ride as I’ve ever experienced at the avant-garde dining destination.
If there was an aberration in the mix, it was the short-lived Suna on Capitol Hill, Spero’s debut restaurant six years ago. Among other misfires, an allium consommé that resembled canned fried onions in water didn’t cut it for some diners.
Reverie’s menu is a mere 16 dishes long, counting dessert; compositions are described in just a handful of words, encouraging conversation with servers. What to make of the word “mushroom,” trailed by “shiso,” “salsify” and “egg yolk fudge”? Make sure to try it, a server practically insists. I’m glad I did, if only to relate that the maitake cooked over charcoal are smoky and delicious and an underliner of mushroom bits reduced with milk is fine, but a border of amber syrup (the “fudge”) throws the dish off.
“Sunchoke” forces diners to use their imaginations as well, loosely described as it is by “pine nut/yuzu/grains.” The combination is a curiosity involving yuzu curd, a few spoonfuls of wild rice and pine nuts, practically raw sunchoke slices and a sail of flaxseed brittle. Except for the sunchoke, the dish isn’t bad, per se, but the recipe comes across as something a Hollywood doctor might prescribe — you know, earthy, crunchy and yuzu-y.
I’m all about the “scallop crudo.” Let me dispense with the printed words that merely hint at what follows and tell you that the seafood makes a satisfying entry point. Soft slices of raw scallop and crisp panes of dried scallop hover over a base of buttermilk whose lovely green tint is thanks to fresh dill. You’d be smart to pair the seafood with rugbrod, slices of seeded dark bread served with a tuft of butter dusted with “ash,” from charred powdered hay. Both dishes taste inspired by Spero’s time in Denmark.
While I’m singing praises, the bar deserves a shout-out for some nice balancing acts, including “The Business,” a bright spin on bee’s knees, and a rye cocktail that hints of both coffee and figs. “Piccola Italia” could become a habit.
Surely the most pampered potato in town is the one that’s spiraled, steamed and basted in butter. It shares its dish with a wedge of lightly charred cabbage and a red-wine sauce thickened with — sorry, vegetarians — beef tendon. The assembly is a nod to comfort food, save for the French black truffle that might be grated onto the plate until a funky dark Alp appears. I’d like the whole thing a lot more if the potato didn’t resist my fork. (Spot a pattern?)
The dish that seems to have strayed from a pub turns out to be one of the most popular. What’s not to cheer about a cheffy take on the fast-food hamburger of one’s youth? Spero has us opening wide for a crusty patty packaged with gooey cheese, pickles cured with miso and chopped onions in a toasted sesame-seed bun. The chef makes such a good burger, I briefly fantasize about him opening a diner. (The shuttered Slim’s in Petworth could use a warm body. Just a thought.)
But Reverie is Spero’s dream, not mine, so I add to my order some hake and some lamb. The fish isn’t immediately apparent when it lands on the table, under a froth of horseradish cream and spicy herbs including Vietnamese cilantro. As the cloud dissipates, we spy white bites of tender steamed hake, along with (oh no!) chewy clams and turnips that — you guessed it — crunch in our mouths. With more attention, the hake has potential for stardom. Lamb shoulder is cooked sous vide, pressed into a red rectangle, crisped on the grill and positioned on a subtly sweet red currant sauce. Good stuff.
Not everything is a small plate, meant to be shared. The kitchen also does big plates, meant to share — and hopefully subsidized by whoever has the Amex black card at the table. A meat connoisseur might figure triple digits are justified by two pounds of rib-eye ennobled with ribbons of pale lardo, a steak lover’s catnip. But a Spanish tortilla priced at $150 seems like a joke, at least until the soft mellow round of eggs, onions and potatoes arrives with high-priced escorts of paddlefish caviar, East Coast sea urchin and a dish of whipped beef fat dusted with paprika. The tortilla, which eats like a glutton’s last meal request, calls to the hedonist; recipients get a tin of roe and a tray of uni, splashed with soy sauce, to play with. (Four could easily split the splurge.) There’s a hundred-dollar duck for sharing, too, but considering my aversion to black licorice, a featured flavor, I kept my distance. Someone else will have to tell you about the merits or misses of the entree.
Desserts are very much in keeping with the surprise-me theme. The standout is a snow-colored square of aerated white chocolate with a texture similar to spongecake.
Much of the food seems designed to make you think: about unusual flavor combinations, about the progress Spero has made, about the neglect some vegetables receive. For a chef with as much experience and as many distinguished mentors as Spero, any missing fine points are unfortunate.
Located near the heavily trafficked intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW, Reverie doesn’t make itself easy to find. The restaurant sits off tiny Grace Street on even tinier Cherry Hill Lane; more than once I’ve encountered people mere yards away, calling the restaurant for directions. By the time you read this, at least two signs are expected to be in place to guide customers to the tucked-away dining room and bar.
Just to be safe, though, download directions. And keep an open mind.