The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide as No. 3 on Tom’s Top 10.
3. Bad Saint
Ordering is the easy part. Getting a foot in the door of the hottest Filipino restaurant in the country? That’s where you need some help with this 24-seat shoe box. If hiring someone to stand in line for you goes against your grain (or budget), try showing up as early as 3:30 in the afternoon for a crack at the initial 5:30 p.m. seating. Also, keep in mind that if you show up 30 minutes or so before closing, there’s a chance a seat might be free, or close to it. The national attention lavished on Bad Saint appears only to have pushed the team harder to impress us. The food these days is even better than when the joint, personalized with family photos, opened to raves last year. The most arresting salad in town is a downy tower of raw shaved coconut, julienned snow peas, purple cabbage and edible flowers, invigorated with a lime leaf dressing. Some of the area’s best goat is here, too, trumpeting lemon grass and chilies in a braise that’s stained black with charred coconut. And I love the new accompaniment to a bowl of clams and sausage swimming in house-made XO sauce: fried Chinese doughnuts for sopping up the gravy. “I like people to be able to pick up food with their hands,” explains co-owner Genevieve Villamora, the smile at the door. Yes, ma’am!
3 1/2 stars
Bad Saint: 3226 11th St. NW. No phone. badsaintdc.com.
Prices: Mains $10-$36.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10:
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2016 Spring Dining Guide as No. 4 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
Bad news about Bad Saint: The Columbia Heights restaurant doesn’t take reservations for its 24 seats, meaning diners have to get in line early for the chance to explore the Filipino menu by chef Tom Cunanan. But what a ride once you’re in! Shrimp fritters spiky with shredded vegetables are by turns sweet, funky and loud. Chicken marinated in cane vinegar, bay leaf and garlic and finished with fresh grilled coconut might be described by a server as “life-changing.” All I know is, I scraped the bowl clean and couldn’t wait to do so again. In a word, the food here is bold. And bodacious. With luck, you’ll be squeezed into a booth rather than against a ledge, or better yet, at one of three seats facing the fire show of a tiny open kitchen.
The following review was originally published Jan. 6, 2016.
Bad Saint review: A Filipino restaurant packs big tastes into a small package
A host, likely co-owner Genevieve Villamora, admits a few early birds at a time, asking about allergies before showing guests to a perch in the restaurant equivalent of a micro-apartment. A handful of fortunate customers quickly fills two tight booths along the left wall and three seats, one for solo acts, fronting the open kitchen. Remaining early birds land at a slender ledge in the rear or (better) a counter with a window facing 11th Street NW. The former comes with a band of mirrors for decoration, meaning your view is of yourself drinking a Manila Sling and eating lumpia. The latter setup frames a sidewalk lined with people who want to trade places with you.
Getting into Bad Saint takes effort. Eating there leaves you grateful. The latest instance of Filipino food in the region, Bad Saint celebrates a cuisine influenced by colonialism and trade partners — Spain, Mexico, China, the United States — while combining the talent of three principals who have family ties to the Philippines. (Co-owner Nick Pimentel, a partner in nearby Room 11, and chef Tom Cunanan, a veteran of the local Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, round out the cast.) The names of many of the dishes, served family-style and in no particular order, may be unfamiliar to non-natives, but their personalities encourage you to learn them, if only so you can call them by name the next visit.
Warm up with ukoy. It’s what happens when you introduce shredded sweet potato, carrots, yuca and whole freshwater shrimp to a cornstarch slurry and fry the mass in hot oil until everything sticks. “Eat it with your hands,” a server instructs. A tad sweet and pleasantly funky, the spiky fritter comes with a chili vinegar that excites the eating and a crunch loud enough to perk up neighbors’ ears.
Another dish that’s easy to fall for is tapa, what tastes like beef jerky (only sweeter) on a nest of greens with a split cooked farm egg in the center. “It’s a breakfast dish,” says the server, who coaches us to mix the runny garnish with the greens, the air-dried meat and rice that lines the bottom of the bowl.
More daring: bitter melon, “named appropriately,” says Villamora of the chopped green squash that keeps company with fermented Chinese black beans, pungent long peppers and fluffy scrambled egg in a dish that ended my year on a high and a sigh.
Inquiries about the food sometimes elicit backstories. Ask for a bowl called (altogether now!) sinigang na hip on at isda, and you might be told that the meaty snakefish in the tamarind-spiked fish broth, so bodacious it should be bottled and sold separately, is caught by local watermen using flashlights and crossbows at night. There are shrimp in the swirl, too, and they’re tasty swimmers. Several adobos populate the menu, but only one of the dishes (which feature a protein marinated in cane vinegar, bay leaf and garlic, among other amplifiers) is described to us by a server as “life-changing.” Hyperbole? Suffice it to say the tingling braised chicken — rich with coconut milk, dusky with turmeric and scattered with fresh coconut charred on the grill — moves me enough to scrape clean the clay pot. The vessel also finds room for soft chunks of Jarrahdale pumpkin, the prized gourd native to Australia.
Whole fried branzino buried under spicy greens is an enticing tower of hot and cool, crisp skin and snowy flesh, but hard to tackle given the entree’s height and the lack of a second plate for removing the bones. Did I mention dining space is at a premium? “You have to be skinny to work here,” a pal says as the two of us dodge an incoming order the night we’re wedged into a ledge.
The best word to describe much of this cooking: bold. My preferred chicharrones these days are the fried pork (sometimes chicken) skins dusted with Cheetos-orange XO powder and presented as a bouquet alongside a bowl of chili vinegar. Even the salads lean in. Chopped purple cabbage tossed with toasted almonds and bites of pomelo, similar to grapefruit, gets downright saucy in tandem with a habanero vinaigrette.
If the easy and gracious service feels familiar, it’s because Villamora comes to the project from Little Serow and Komi, the four-star Thai and Greek restaurants, respectively, revered as much for their attention in the dining room as for what leaves the kitchen.
The upside to taking more than two years to open: The owners had time to think through a lot of details — Filipino-inspired cocktails, among other fine points — before turning on the lights in September.
While the interior is cramped, the design does its best to distract diners with a view — say, a kitchen animated by dancing fire and a large wok, or the personal effects of the staff, including a shrine created from family photos and a shelf set off with mah-jongg tiles. What looks to be wooden lattice over your head is oxidized, laser-cut steel, its pattern modeled after that of the woven baskets specific to Mindanao, the island in the Philippines where Pimentel’s father was born.
Bad Saint offers just one dessert, no doubt to discourage diners from lingering, because there’s always someone somewhere hoping to get a call from the restaurant telling them a few inches of personal space have been freed up. The lone finish, like so much of what comes before it, renders a reason to return: heirloom purple rice from the Philippines strewn with soft bites of cooked apple and airy puffed rice, enlivened with lime zest, its tropical aroma heightened by the steam. (See recipe, Page 33.)
Images of a long-ago Louisiana fishing village, Saint Malo, home to one of the earliest immigrant populations from the Philippines, make plain the restaurant’s name: Malo means “bad” in Spanish.
Diners might translate the experience a little differently: small space, big adventure.