This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide as No. 7 on a list of the year’s top 10 restaurants.
No. 7. Spoken English
The benefit to standing for dinner? “It opens people up,” says Erik Bruner-Yang, whose intimate restaurant in the Line hotel, modeled on bars popular in Japan, finds strangers chatting one another up and even sharing plates at a couple of tall marble tables. (What sounds like a pain really isn’t. Then again, I don’t wear high heels.) The menu revolves around small plates: a pickle assortment including kimchi, fluffy inches-high Japanese pancakes topped with caviar, skewered roasted eggplant sprinkled with salted egg yolk and finished with garlic slivers dotted with smoked chile sauce. My current fascination is the multicourse chicken yakitori, featuring a sail of crisp skin, lush mousse and grilled breast. The dining room, including chef de cuisine Matthew Crowley’s kitchen, suggests a gallery; clusters of gold-colored straws draw eyes to the ceiling, while fanciful collages dress the walls. (Yes, that’s a sea bass in business attire.) The pièce de résistance takes 45 minutes to prepare and costs almost $100. But the whole duck, roasted over an oak fire and trailed by a flotilla of enhancements, duck fat flour tortillas included, is feast enough for six.
2 1/2 stars
Spoken English: 1770 Euclid St. NW. 202-588-0525. thelinehotel.com/dc/venues.
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Prices: Small plates $5-$15.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10 restaurants of 2018:
The following preview was originally published May 4, 2018.
Know before you go: The last restaurant to open in the Line hotel in Adams Morgan isn’t furnished with any seats. Spoken English, from chef Erik Bruner-Yang, invites customers to stand in an open kitchen around two gray marble tables, the smooth feel of which the creator likens to “the kitchen island in a rich friend’s house.”
True that. Spoken English, which joins Brothers and Sisters and A Rake’s Progress in a converted church, takes its name from the overseas restaurants Bruner-Yang saw offering their menus in English. The original idea for the small space in the back of the lobby was to showcase a tasting menu, chairs included. But the more Bruner-Yang thought about it, the more he says he realized, “I barely enjoy eating tasting menus. I didn’t think I would enjoy cooking one.”
Instead, on any given night, a handful of strangers find themselves in close quarters ordering off a pink menu composed mostly of Asian-flavored small plates. They include a pickle platter with nicely sour kimchi; tender cumin beef that’s nearly upstaged by its fermented mustard greens; and a soft blood cake made with what you think, plus fresh herbs and dried fried rice that gives the dark snack its crackle.
Bruner-Yang tags the durian curry as the menu’s bestseller. “People are excited to try it,” he says of the Malaysian-inspired vegan dish featuring spaghetti squash “noodles” and durian, the fruit whose infamous stink is mellowed by fermentation. The twice-baked potato turns a homey side dish into a decadent nibble with the assistance of shimmering roe and creamy sea urchin on top.
The showiest prize is the whole duck, which is air-dried, briefly brined in hot vinegar and roasted over an oak fire before it hits the table. Accompanied by duck-fat flour tortillas and a pantry of condiments — hot sauce, hoisin, scallions, cucumbers — the $98 feast begs to be shared, and I enlist my fellow standees to help themselves. This is precisely what Bruner-Yang hoped patrons would do: mingle with one another in the chef’s riff on tachinomiya, the standing bars popular in Japan. Having enjoyed a portion of my duck, the couple next to me offer bites of their chicken yakitori. Sharing becomes contagious. Venmo gets a workout.
Spoken English benefits from the skills of co-chefs James Wozniuk, a veteran of Maketto on H Street NE, and Matthew Crowley, whose portfolio includes the modern Greek Komi in Dupont Circle. Eyes tend to be focused on the kitchen action when they’re not drawn to the ceiling, made artful with clusters of gold-colored straws.
For the moment, unless it’s been bought out by a group, the drill is first come, first served at Spoken English, which can accommodate a mere 15 diners. Bruner-Yang plans to introduce reservations soon, though. “I’m already asking them to stand up and eat,” he reasons. “I can’t make them wait, too.”