The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
Butcher extraordinaire Nate Anda is the man behind the menu, a carnivore’s cue to get piggy and order smoked ham and potatoes fried in pork fat, fried olives stuffed with fiery spreadable salami, or a pork burger enlightened with garlicky kale and fennel mostarda. Fear not, vegetarians. A list of “Green Things” makes sure you’re as welcome as any cave man. As fun as the food is the music, broadcast from a jukebox in back but also on a wall up front, in the form of (count ’em!) 7,000 cassette tapes.
EatBar: 415 Eighth St. SE. 202-847-4827. eat-bar.com .
Prices: Mains $9-$20.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published May 25, 2016.
EatBar review: A favorite returns, to the tune of a new neighborhood
Fact: No Washington chef has done more to promote cured meats in the area than Nathan Anda, a longtime brand with the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Among his claims to fame are Red Apron butcher shops in Fairfax and the District, businesses linked, literally and respectively, to popular meat-centric restaurants, B-Side and Partisan.
All of them owe a debt to EatBar, where Anda took an interest in whole animal butchery, then ran with it. The name was retired when the sibling to the adjoining Tallula closed two years ago after a decade-long run in Arlington. But the concept of another neighborhood bar with a focus on charcuterie was never far from the principals’ minds. “We missed it!” says Michael Babin, the group’s founder. He was speaking for the team but channeling customers’ nostalgia, too. When space became available on Capitol Hill, the company got its chance to reboot a favorite and dust off EatBar’s jukebox and a slice of its zinc bar.
The reincarnation, a mere 44 seats on Barracks Row, comes with a visual that appears to have its own fan club: a wall composed of more than 7,000 cassette tapes, some arranged to spell out the word EAT. (Babin says he bought everything eBay had to offer, with tapes coming from as far away as Indonesia.) If you’re seated along the plastic facade, chances are good that you’ll look up from your meal at some point to see a diner or two capturing the art installation with their smartphones. Actual music is broadcast on the aforementioned jukebox, the selections for which are detailed on the flip side of the food menu and run from the Afghan Whigs to the Velvet Underground.
“Drop the Bomb” by Trouble Funk pairs well with a plate of ham fries, one of several hits among the “Snacky Things” on EatBar’s edible play list. A jumble of potatoes fried in pork fat, sliced smoked ham, Calabrian chili paste and balsamic-glazed pearl onions, then finished with a dab of ham fat, they are as homely as they are irresistible. Fried green olives stuffed with ’nduja, the fiery spreadable salami, are satisfying salt bombs, the kind of snack bartenders love to serve if only to keep customers drinking; eat one and you’ve probably met your sodium needs for the day. Smelt dusted with rice flour and seasoned with smoked paprika and fennel pollen, the trendy chef’s pantry essential, shows a kitchen as comfortable at sea as on land. All the crisp fish needs is a kiss of lemon. The bust in the bunch: “lemon & oregano” chicken wings that strike only a sour note. They’re scrawny, too, as if plucked from ... sparrows, maybe?
Charcuterie plates are as pervasive as beards on bartenders. Anda’s selections collect some of his greatest hits, foremost a creamy pork liver terrine redolent of nutmeg and other warm baking spices. A meat board is richer still with the addition of finocchiona, or fennel-spiced pork sausage. The grazing is elevated by the bread, a carryover from Partisan in Penn Quarter: Italian tigelle that looks like an English muffin, only flatter and bearing a stamp from the grill.
Warm bread plus cured meat, and all’s swell in the world.
“Bready Things” embraces a jazzy burger built around ground pork and supplemented with fashion statements that include chopped garlic-punched kale and fennel mostarda. Hungarian hot peppers sneak in some heat; rivulets of white American cheese drip over the lower bun. Chomp down, then prepare to switch burger allegiances. A raft of grilled sourdough constitutes a dinner float, festooned with whipped ricotta, fava beans and what looks like pink sawdust but turns out to be filings of aged ham. The garnish minimizes kitchen waste and adds a mysterious saline edge to the tartine.
The new EatBar resurrects a few signatures from the original, including weekly-changing beef, pork and sausage dishes: “Beastly Things” that keep cooks engaged and seats filled. Anda’s corn dog is a day at the fair, a springy pork sausage encased in a golden sleeve of cornmeal that’s fluffier than most thanks to beer in the batter. The reverent approach to a junk food staple extends to its condiment, a tomatillo moutarde. Pork also stars in a whopper of a sandwich, shredded shoulder meat made juicy with orange soda (it works) and crunchy with a slaw of red cabbage. Tacos heaped with short ribs and green tomato salsa take a back seat to the standard-bearers at El Sol, among other Mexican outposts in the city, yet EatBar’s remain modest pleasures.
Anda wrote his latest menu with more than carnivores in mind. As porky as the list is, options beckon. The simplest of the “Green Things” is a nest of angel hair pasta verdant with nettle pesto and punctuated with a crackle from breadcrumbs spiked with garlic and oregano. More like something you’d expect from a designer Italian restaurant than a neighborhood bar, a slab of Roman gnocchi serves as a stage for an electric mushroom salad crowned with frilly tango lettuce.
High fives to Anda’s colleagues, liquids aces Brent Kroll and Greg Engert, who do for drinks at EatBar (and other NRG properties) what Anda does for chow. Kroll, the wine guy, lets diners mull more than 100 labels, gathered under headings such as “snacky,” “beasty” and “fishy” wines.Engert, the beer dude, points patrons to suds categorized by their flavor profiles: “fruit & spice,” “tart & funky,” “smoke” and so on. The descriptors are as fun as the selections are deep.
Bars are not libraries, and music is central to the theme of this watering hole. I get it. But does the volume at EatBar have to approximate a Motorhead concert? I’m sometimes tempted to implement a request from a reader, imploring me to take a star away from restaurants that disrespect eardrums.
For now, I’m grateful for a new spot on the Hill where the prices encourage frequent use, the bar prompts second rounds, a wall lets me reminisce and more than a few “things” hit all the right notes.