The splashiest restaurant yet to grace the Wharf — Del Mar by Fabio Trabocchi — prompts two visceral responses from customers.
One involves a variation on “awesome.” Whatever the exact word, it applies not just to the food, which is frequently luscious, but to the frisson in the dining room and the finesse of the staff.
Sure to follow in any review, verbal or otherwise, is mention of cost. In typical Trabocchi fashion, the chef’s first deviation from Italian cooking is a pricey proposition. Even brunch can cost $100 a head (well, if the heads in question consume alcohol and order paella, one of Del Mar’s signature dishes).
Let me be clear. Even if I wasn’t the beneficiary of someone’s generosity, or on an expense account, I’d save up for a meal here. In the three months since Del Mar has set sail, the restaurant has emerged as yet another example of why Washington is among the best cities in the nation for fine dining. Great ingredients and chic decor explain part of the story; a sense of commitment and a pride in doing everything just so make equally compelling impressions.
Trabocchi does nothing halfway. Check out one of the lures at his raw bar. Three briny oysters from Prince Edward Island rest atop a fanciful, snail-shaped silver bowl filled with ice, garnished with seaweed and set on a gold place mat — the Mar-a-Lago of oyster presentations. The specimens are lovely on their own, but they pick up a smoky allure with the addition of some of the house-made hot sauce, coaxed from saffron and paprika, served on the side. The pleasure is fleeting, albeit first-class. As soon as the silver bowl is removed, a hot towel scented with fresh rosemary takes its place.
Just as detailed is any order for charcuterie. As much as I love hand-cut slices of jamon Iberico, from pigs fed a diet of acorns, an ounce of the treat goes for $26. More affordable, and just as much of a kick, is two ounces of sobrasada for $14. A specialty of Mallorca, home to Trabocchi’s wife and business partner, Maria, the spreadable cured pork sausage is rolled out on a cart in a “bowl” of the sausage casing. The meat is the color of fire, the texture of pâté and shot through with smoked paprika. An attendant heats one of two spoons with a small blowtorch, so we can taste the difference between hot and room-temperature sobrasada. If you like the Italian ’nduja, you’ll appreciate its Spanish equivalent, especially as it’s offered here, with grilled bread drizzled with chestnut honey. Restraint, thy name ... isn’t mine.
The menu is front-loaded with appetizers, hot and cold tapas that reveal some of the kitchen’s best work. Friends who text me for recommendations are encouraged to splurge on the foie gras torchon studded with membrillo (quince paste) and eaten on crisp bread with red onion jam, and the creamy chestnut soup ennobled with both lobster and a froth of sherry-laced “cappuccino.” Common-sounding tapas exit the kitchen tasting like a million bucks, which is another way of saying black truffle aioli (and black trumpet mushrooms) advance the cause of Del Mar’s refined take on the tortilla, a classic potato omelet.
Del Mar — “the sea” in Spanish — makes a delicious case for octopus, cooked low and slow so that the skin takes on a pleasant gelatinous quality, then served on a zesty bed of crushed, olive oil-enriched potatoes. Diners who shy away from octopus because they’ve suffered through mushy or coarse flesh will be pleased to find neither here.
Espelette pepper. Paprika. Much of the food at Del Mar relies on those and other quietly riveting seasonings. Consider the charcoal-kissed lamb chop, ringed with olive sauce and accompanied by a sweet pepper swollen with shredded braised lamb mixed with Manchego.
Don’t tell José Andrés, but Del Mar dishes up the choicest paella right now. Made on a dedicated stovetop with short-grain bomba rice, the dish, apportioned for two or more, comes in four flavors and stripes of aioli. Wild mushrooms and thick slices of blood sausage draw me most in winter; near-raw duck breast, a foul underscored with pockets of salt, marred the only paella I wouldn’t want to repeat.
Restaurants of all stripes feel compelled to offer a burger on their lunch menus, and Del Mar is no different — except, of course, that it gives the American totem a decidedly Spanish spin, with a patty shaped from racy chorizo and fatty pork shoulder and with a slathering of aioli instead of mustard or ketchup. The brioche bun? It’s black, from squid ink, seemingly every chef’s paint of choice these days. The real charm of the construction are ringlets of perfectly fried squid between patty and bun that give the sandwich delightful lift. Then again, the spear of anchovy, green olive and pickled guindilla pepper that holds the mouthful together is fun, too, a nod to Spain’s beloved pintxos bars, where the bold threesome is known as a Gilda (pronounced heel-da).
The contemporary main dining room is set off with an acrylic, fish-shaped chandelier, a sea of blue tiles and a fleet of servers who appear to be styled by GQ or Vogue, plus the bonus of an exhibition kitchen under the guidance of executive chef Alex Rosser, the former chef de cuisine of Fiola in Penn Quarter. But I’ve come to prefer the Old World-suggestive veranda, soothing in green, with wicker chairs and windows facing the wharf’s boats and passersby.
Wildly popular since Day 1, Del Mar, like Fiola Mare, the Trabocchis’ Italian seafood restaurant in Georgetown, is already a VIP magnet. The strain of success, the burden of popularity, reveal occasional lapses. On the night the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan and his entourage swarmed the private dining room on the second floor, I couldn’t help but think the group was being attended to at the expense of those of us below; some waited so long for our entrees, it felt like Ken Burns might have been producing dinner. And I couldn’t help but feel I was being taken advantage of the night I asked for a red to accompany the duck paella and a server returned with “a Rioja that tastes like a Burgundy” that was double the price of the white wine that had preceded it. (No, I didn’t give him a cutoff point, but the first wine should have given him some direction. Note to self: Talk numbers the next time wine is being discussed.)
The infrequent misses aside, Del Mar is not merely the best restaurant on the Southwest Waterfront, it’s among the city’s finest restaurants to emerge all last year. Like space travel and time to read Ron Chernow’s “Grant,” a meal here is a luxury. Hope that someone else is picking up the check.
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
791 Wharf St. SW.
Open: Lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch weekends.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $10 to $165 (for caviar service), main courses $30 to $105 (for rib-eye to share).
Sound check: 83 decibels / Extremely loud.