For a change of pace, let’s start at the end: Few Washington restaurants do leftovers better than A Rake’s Progress in the Line hotel. It’s not so much the food I’m talking about, although some of it is very good, but the way any remains from dinner are bundled.
Instead of dropping leftovers at the table, a server passes them off near the coat check when you exit. The packaging is of the sort you see when your most stylish, eco-conscious friend arrives with a host gift. Which is to say compostable butcher paper and black twine are a delightful way to send you into the night with the feast you couldn’t finish.
Surely you’ve heard of the Line hotel. Food lovers have been flocking there ever since it opened in what used to be a church in Adams Morgan. A Rake’s Progress unfolds on the second story, above the ground-floor Brothers and Sisters, and marks the debut Washington restaurant of Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde, whose work at the rustic, regionally focused Woodberry Kitchen earned him a James Beard award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region three years ago.
Diners’ senses go on high alert when they segue from entrance to handsome bar and dining room, where the perfume of oak smoke and the good bones of the church reveal this to be one of the most ambitious restaurants of the new year. Eyes are drawn to the center of the mezzanine, a vast hole that looks down on the lobby and is dressed with a spiky chandelier composed of organ pipes. Staff members positioned around the perimeters of the dining room suggest a Secret Service fleet, only more engaging. (Did you hear? The Obamas dropped by for dinner last month, before A Rake’s Progress officially opened.)
The cocktail list, created by beverage director Corey Polyoka, ought to be perused online before dinner; it’s basically an essay exploring the region’s sipping sensibilities and highlighting rum, rye and bourbon. Enlist a server as a guide and you might be the recipient of a twist on a rickey using elderflower vinegar, lemon thyme and local Ivy City gin. Finer still is a sipping rum, served with cane sorghum that’s pressed to order and makes for a drink similar to a daiquiri. Should you ask for anything typically made using lemon, the request might be met with a little cup of subtly sour verjus, the pressed juice of unripened grapes. Early on, at least, the restaurant is sticking to a buy-local philosophy. Gjerde enlisted two Maryland wineries to make 900 gallons of verjus, which the restaurant uses in place of citrus.
Game, cooked in an open kitchen using an oak-fired hearth fitted with a smoker and a spit, is the theme at A Rake’s Progress. But first, there are small plates and salads-for-two to consider. A server might steer you to rockfish chowder accompanied by a toast rack. “I have a toast obsession,” says Gjerde, who’s also passionate about supporting local farmers and growers. The sliced bread for the chowder, which also floats crisp scallops and salt pork in hot cream, relies on locally sourced grains — white spelt and whole wheat — and comes pre-buttered and salted. (The cream gets its savor from fish bones that have been steeped in the liquid, says Opie Crooks, the 32-year-old executive chef.) The vegetable mille feuille is something of a tease, since the promised pastry comes not in expected layers but in the form of tiny buttery leaf shapes amid free-form parsnips, carrots, beets and other vegetables that pick up their smokiness from time beside the fire. The one small plate I could live without is a halved head of savoy cabbage, charred from the heat, carpeted with benne seeds and zapped with a ginger dressing. “It tastes like . . . soap,” my dining companion said, reading my mind as we both put our forks down.
Entrees tend to be introduced at the table, then returned to the kitchen to be carved. Chicken, dry-brined with oregano, garlic and fish pepper, emerges from the hearth as rousing as any around right now. Escorts of buttery whipped potatoes and creamed greens are simple pleasures. True to its title, “trout on a log” finds the fish on a plate-shaped slice of wood, with brown butter hollandaise for enrichment. “Rabbit-stuffed rabbit” delivers sausage inside saddle. Lamb shoulder comes with a clever plate-mate of tender dumplings, green with fresh mint.
A Rake’s Progress benefits from a staff every bit as fun and knowledgeable as at Woodberry Kitchen, but with more finesse. Set your briefcase on the floor, and it’s quickly reassigned to a stool.
Pastry mavens Amanda Cook (who helped open Kinship and Métier) and Beth Bosmeny (previously with Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco) encourage you to stay for dessert. Their inaugural list reads like a draft, and that’s by design, to give diners a look at the creative process. The description following “soufflé,” for instance, includes “Need oven!” which is another way of luring guests back for one once the restaurant acquires the right equipment. For now, there is an adorable miniature Smith Island cake flanked with ramekins of apple balls, whipped cream and apple sherbet, and a baked Alaska whose rum finish is warmed over a candle before being poured over a dome of honey meringue.
Cook says her new job finds her following her father’s lifelong advice. Working at A Rake’s Progress, she jokes, “I go to church every day.”
1770 Euclid St. NW. 202-588-0525. thelinehotel.com/dc/venues. Entrees, $32 to $154 (rib-eye for sharing).