The name? Don’t get me started.
The food? Better than one might expect of a place branded Dirty Habit. Unleashed earlier this month, the dining room and three bars replace Poste Moderne Brasserie in the Hotel Monaco in Penn Quarter. The noir interior — greenish in spots, with spidery lights and exposed brick and steel — suggests that Lily Munster might have been tapped for design notions.
As much as I try to keep an open mind on my restaurant rounds, I have to confess I wasn’t expecting to warm up to the place. Blame the news release, which promised an “apocalyptic vibe.” My waiter on a maiden visit didn’t delete doubts when he announced Dirty Habit’s theme: “We are a globally inspired social plates” experience. By “social,” he meant the food was designed for (all together now!) sharing with tablemates.
A scan of the list, including truffle fries and tuna tartare, read like yesterday’s news.
Then I started ordering. Charred eggplant with sauteed bok choy and shiitake mushrooms in a sherry-honey glaze makes for good grazing, as do meatballs formed with ground duck, foie gras and smoked bacon, then fried to a gentle crackle. Those sepia marbles break open to reveal mozzarella in their centers; an underliner of tomato sauce zapped with Korean hot pepper paste counters the richness.
The man behind the food is Kyoo Eom, 40, a kitchen carry-over from Poste and the former chef de cuisine at 2941 in Falls Church. A native of Korea, Eom says he’s offering the kind of food he likes to eat himself or make for guests at home. So there are braised short ribs at Dirty Habit. Intended to feed up to four diners, the beef is presented with house-made kimchi, pickled radishes and sushi rice.
Warm, house-baked potato rolls are a good idea that goes blah as soon as they cool off; wine prices put you in mind of a far fancier restaurant than this one. Spring instead for one of the memorable cocktails, maybe the mezcal-fired Prickly Position, flavored with pineapple syrup, lime and an ice cube hot with serrano.
On my last visit, servers roamed the edgy room offering pintxos on wooden boards for $2 a pop; the one-bite treats are designed to “enhance the dining experience between courses,” says General Manager William Smith. Mission accomplished. Smoked salmon, cream cheese and a lacy potato chip threaded on a cocktail skewer felt like breakfast for dinner.
Yet the dish that calls to me most is shrimp cloaked in a curry made creamy with coconut milk, zesty with ginger and mustard seeds and fragrant with curry leaves.
I dare say the combination is . . . habit-forming.
555 Eighth St. NW. 202-449-7095. dirtyhabitdc.com. Small plates, $5 to $18.