Matt Baker figures he looked at more than 50 sites for his maiden restaurant before settling on the former Pappas Tomato Factory in Ivy City. The setting was basically his wish list, says the 31-year-old chef: a “perfect rectangle” of an old building in a “developing neighborhood” he felt he could help mold.
The light-filled Gravitas looks nothing like any of its nearby competitors, restaurants including Ivy City Smokehouse, Ari’s Diner and La Puerta Verde. The new kid on the block benefits from the good bones it inherited and a few contemporary flourishes, the sum of which finds visitors sitting in a dining room with poured concrete floors, expansive brick walls awash in white paint, steel beams and pops of green. Succulents suspended in glass globes, for example, keep the setting from appearing overly industrial.
Gravitas also adds a different way of eating to its neighborhood. Baker, who last cooked at City Perch in Bethesda, thinks the best way to showcase his cooking is through a tasting menu. Wisely, he lets his audience decide how much they want to eat; customers choose from four to seven courses, from $78 to $110, respectively. A focus on the Mid-Atlantic region is expressed on the printed menu, set off with an inky illustration of the Chesapeake Bay.
At heart, I’m a minimalist. Four courses for me, then. From “Light Beginning,” one of four menu categories, I opt for a summer salad that yields a wreath of colorful herbs and vegetables — cornets of summer squash, ribbons of carrot, miniature eggplant — interspersed with tufts of whipped goat cheese. “Indulgence,” my second plate, is just that, panko-crusted, soft-centered sweetbreads encircled in lightly charred petals of pearl onion, each holding a drop of Madeira jus. “Hearty,” a third course, brings a slab of snowy halibut paved with a pale green puree of zucchini, squash and basil, and a sail of fried collard greens. What makes the entree robust is an underliner of what Baker calls sauce “Americana”: beurre blanc flecked with tomato and herbs, and shimmering with salmon roe.
Do not become too attached to any of the above. Baker frequently tweaks his compositions or moves on to other recipes. The elegant white chocolate and buttermilk cake that ended my dinner on a sigh (Those roasted strawberries! That yuzu sorbet!) is soon to be replaced, FYI. “We keep it fresh!” the chef jokes of his offerings.
General manager Sam Lindenberg watches over the 70-seat dining room with the same easy charm he dispensed when he was patrolling Casa Luca downtown, although I wish the wines he poured on my visit had been served at more flattering temperatures. The whites and reds were uniformly warm, an easy problem to solve.
“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” says Baker, who signed the lease for Gravitas two years ago and was delayed by construction setbacks. Going forward sounds like bliss compared to the health inspection. It was held the day before the July 3 launch — with 60 reservations on the books. (Gravitas passed.)
What you see now is just the beginning. By the end of August, Baker plans to introduce a two-seat chef’s counter, where diners will have the evening to experience a 14-course menu consisting of dishes that aren’t on the standing list. And Phase 2 of the project will find a rooftop bar enclosed in a greenhouse, along with a 1,200-square-foot garden. Baker would like the latter to do the “heavy lifting” for his produce-driven dishes and help him achieve his goal of bettering the community. He’d like to donate leftovers to neighbors.
1401 Okie St. NE. 202-763-7942. gravitasdc.com. Tasting menus, $78 to $110.