One of many dishes I encourage you to try at Fancy Radish, the latest restaurant to send food lovers to the Atlas District, is a beet “picnic” showcasing Chioggia, or candy cane, beets. Slices of the wood-smoked vegetable are striped with a barbecue vinaigrette and arranged on a white plate with a confetti of Brussels sprouts, a puddle of cucumber ranch dressing and slices of toasted brown bread baked in-house.
“Treat it like a sandwich,” a server says of the presentation. We take her advice — assembling this with that, and that with this — and admire the way in which char and spice, and crunch and cool, play off one another.
It doesn’t hurt that we’re chasing the spread back with some well-made cocktails in a dining room with a marble bar that became one of the most difficult reservations to secure the moment it opened in March, and not just because the menu treats vegans like first-class citizens. Fancy Radish, from the husband and wife founders of the esteemed Vedge and V Street restaurants in Philadelphia, operates under the assumption their food has to taste great, full stop. The fact that no meat is involved is secondary. Actually, owners Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby prefer to play down the plant-based aspect, even as their execution has turned naysayers into converts.
Per Landau, “a lot of people are scarred by vegetable experiences as children.”
One route to recovery is the rutabaga fondue, and before you start snickering, let me say, the vegan fondue at Fancy Radish bests a lot of the dairy-and-wine versions out there. Created from pureed rutabaga, miso, tofu mayonnaise and more, and offered with pickled vegetables and warm pretzel bread (a little shout-out to Philly), the contents of the crock reveal creamy texture and pitch-perfect tang. The only thing missing from the picture is a Swiss Alp outside.
A second strategy for erasing painful youthful memories brings together smoky, za’atar-zapped cauliflower florets, chickpeas and red lentils dolloped with zhoug, the dynamite herb sauce coaxed in part from cilantro, coriander and garlic. Shards of grilled bread in the bowl act as scoops for the ful.
The dedicated carnivore at my elbow moves his fork from one dish to another, amazed at how much he’s enjoying the food. “Why didn’t we have these as kids?” he wonders aloud, imagining a childhood where vegetables were thought about in terms of pleasure rather than penance.
Fancy Radish takes its name from one of the most popular dishes at Vedge, a plate of four radishes, each treated to a different Japanese-inspired garnish, including yuzu-avocado puree and blistered shishito peppers. Landau and Jacoby liked the idea of taking something pedestrian and making it posh.
Their new restaurant excels at the practice. A mound of fried potatoes, for instance, summons Lima with its curtain of creamy golden chile pepper sauce and dusting of peanuts and dried olive. And no area kitchen of my acquaintance lavishes more attention on a carrot than this one, which roasts the length in Moroccan spices, hot smokes it, finishes it on the plancha and displays it on a bed of lentils. The flavor of the carrot is matched by a texture that’s simultaneously firm and soft.
The food here is nuanced and complex. “We can’t just serve produce — that’s a salad,” says Landau, who with Jacoby commutes to Washington from their home base. Getting the desired result takes time and effort. One case in point is Korean grilled tofu, roasted for exactly eight minutes. “Any more and it becomes a sponge,” says Landau. “Any less and it gets soggy.” The warm tofu is cooled, which makes it dense, in a marinade of beets, Dijon mustard and sesame oil, then grilled and slathered with gochujang, the Korean chile paste, before the sweet and fiery slab is presented to diners. A day’s worth of work goes into that and other “labor bombs,” as the staff at Fancy Radish calls them.
With few exceptions, the restaurant, attended to by chef de cuisine David Gravenmier, a Vedge alumnus, isn’t trying to make vegan versions of typically meaty dishes. Portobello mushrooms aren’t being pressed into service as Bolognese sauce, in other words. Instead, avocados are split and stuffed with pickled, riced cauliflower, sunny from turmeric and positioned on a slip of a fried rice noodle atop a smear of romesco. A lip-smacking study in green, yellow and orange, the assembly reminds us we eat first with our eyes.
Jacoby’s desserts play along. Not to be missed are crisp-fluffy doughnut holes, sprung from garbanzo flour and injected with sumac-sour cherry jelly before they’re rolled in sugar and thyme and partnered with a velvety scoop of halvah ice cream made with soy and coconut milks.
This compelling food is packaged in what Landau calls an “industrial garden” fusing concrete floors and exposed ceiling with paintings of radishes behind the host stand and Swiss chard bordering the open kitchen. Green napkins and water glasses quietly reflect the restaurant’s mission.
The menu is just a dozen items long, but frequent visitors are likely to find something fresh each meal. Recent arrivals include a twist on langos, the beloved fried bread of Hungary. Typically eaten fresh and warm, carpeted with sour cream and grated cheese, the vegan translation sports leek sauerkraut, crisp-like-bacon shiitakes and micro pea leaves. And the aforementioned grilled tofu has switched allegiances since my first taste. Order it now and the tofu tastes of Morocco, with chermoula along for the ride.
The same thought that’s gone into the food selection is repeated on the drinks list, where natural wines from small producers dominate. Jacoby thinks the often bright, acid-driven wines pair best with the food.
Not every plate here in the Apollo building goes back to the kitchen licked clean. Smoked onion dashi poured into a stone bowl of soba rice, pea leaves and asparagus — a riff on the Japanese salad called ohitashi — smacks of restraint more than anything else, and the cedar ice cream on an otherwise delicious sticky toffee pudding distracts from the dessert with its intense smokiness. But they represent rare wrinkles.
Washington has been in the couple’s sights for years, says Landau. While “most Philadelphians go to New York for a big night out, we go to Washington,” where he has family and Jacoby went to Georgetown University. The difference between their clientele in the City of Brotherly Love and the District? Washingtonians are — hold onto your hats, locals — “more trusting.” In the capable hands of the crew at Fancy Radish, that’s a snap.
600 H St. NE.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers and larger plates $12 to $18.
Sound check: 71 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.