This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Spring Dining Guide as No. 10 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
If there were an award for most improved restaurant of the year, I’d nominate Matt Baker’s airy and light-filled retreat in Ivy City. His food at Gravitas, set in a former tomato canning factory, has always been beautiful. Now, the plates have consistent palatability going for them, too. Consider a recent dinner that commenced with some one-bite snacks — a golden rice fritter with a crown of bachelor buttons, a warm oyster sharing its shell with minced ramps and a hint of pork — and went on to seduce us with a seasonal salad that could have doubled as a headdress for Dionysus, tuna sashimi striped with a crumble of nori and garlic, and morsels of rosy lamb on salsa verde alongside basmati rice.
While I wish the format were a la carte instead of five or seven courses — not everyone wants such largesse on, say, a weeknight — the parade of dishes is a chance to explore Baker’s range. And from the bar flow impressive cocktails, my current choice being a margarita that finds a pinch of sea salt in the lime juice, oils from the citrus on the surface and a glass that remains chilled through the last drop.
New to the program is brunch, where the draws run to silken quiche, sourdough pancakes with glazed blueberries, baked-to-order chocolate chip cookies. And, by the end of May, the rooftop will sport both an open-air cafe, set in a garden, and a glass-enclosed bar and lounge.
Gravitas: 1401 Okie St. NE. 202-763-7942. gravitasdc.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch weekends.
Prices: Five courses $90, seven courses $115.
Sound check: 66 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The Top 10 new restaurants of 2019:
The following review was originally published Sept. 26, 2018.
Gravitas is a beautiful work in progress that needs a dash more flavor
If Matt Baker could strike a bullet point from his résumé, his last kitchen would be a prime candidate.
“City Perch was the worst career decision I ever made,” says the chef about the North Bethesda restaurant he opened in 2014. When Baker left a year later, he vowed never to work for anyone else again and spent the next six months shopping for a place of his own.
He found his ideal in a onetime tomato canning factory in up-and-coming Ivy City, where he has added something novel to the restaurant inventory. Gravitas, which debuted in July after two years of renovation, stands out as the neighborhood’s sole example of fine dining. While a tasting menu is the only way to order, diners are given wide latitude. They design the meal by selecting dishes from four categories — Light Beginning, Indulgence, Hearty, Sweet — presented in as few as four courses ($78) and as many as seven ($110).
To eat here is to get a taste of the techniques and ingredients dominating the current culinary catwalk, from house-baked breads accompanied by seaweed butter to char as a flavor. Great pleasures and lesser lights await in every category, but few dishes can be faulted for leaving the kitchen unbeautiful.
The most elegant of the lot, aptly billed under Indulgence, is agnolotti stuffed with Gruyere cheese. The pasta, ethereal and sharing its bowl with buttery leek threads, isn’t immediately obvious. What appears to be black lace covers it. Baker creates the illusion from vegetable trimmings that he chars, dries, turns into a powder and fries. It’s a lot of steps for one garnish, but the effort pays off in the crackle and nuance it delivers.
Asian accents lend their allure to two other noteworthy dishes, both “light beginnings.” Brown rice from Anson Mills is cooked risotto-style, low and slow, in a seaweed broth, then crowned with an egg yolk, amber and delicious with soy sauce, in a nest of shredded shiso. In the second charmer, every chef’s friend, tuna sashimi, shows up with slivered jalapeño and a stripe of dried shallots and garlic that tastes like a Japanese version of “everything bagel” spice. Diners drag the cool fish through the dots of black vinegar aioli on the plate for added lushness.
The only supplemental charge on the menu is foie gras terrine, served as a slender bar with a thin overlay of cherry gel and strategically placed dots of sauce and garnishes, the best of which are pickled pearl onion petals and cherries. The composition adds $12 to your tab, but the art is a good investment.
That’s less true of some other plates. Indeed, what’s “hearty” rains on the party. Roast tile fish matched with crab salad, colored with minced vegetables and zapped with lemon zest (so far, so good), arrives with little towers of shaved cucumber filled with airy lemon foam that has a companion muttering “dish detergent” under his breath. A verdant but vapid zucchini puree under the fish begs for more of the advertised basil. A duo of pork, lackluster confit belly and sliced roast loin is the dinner guest who comes to the table with nothing to say: boring, and with bland beans and damp Swiss chard to boot. A braised beet resting on cauliflower puree is more about looks than flavor, with the root vegetable beneath a tent of magenta “leaves” made from beet pulp and tapioca.
An exception to the rule is chicken poached to softness in milk and surrounded with roasted mushrooms, sweet peas and glazed turnips, a gathering draped with potato cream. The dish speaks more to comfort than to fashion, and given the many spectacles here, chicken is a nice balancer.
Gravitas offers wine pairings, from $40 to $70, that are likely to show off some good work being done outside of the West Coast. An effervescent pinot blanc from Michigan made a nice companion to the agnolotti, for instance, while the most memorable takeaway from the aforementioned pork was a three-ounce pour of pinot noir from Texas.
Desserts share the inventiveness of what precedes them. A twist on cheesecake involves a trio of saffron-infused tufts of cream and cream cheese alongside blueberry “textures,” including fruit leather. “People love it or hate it,” says Baker, who calls the plate a conversation starter. I’m happy to talk it up; the dessert bears a slight resemblance to milk cream, the popular Indian street food confection. Decadent chocolate ganache is a serpentine shape, its curves set off with luscious dots of caramel and milk chocolate cremeux, and the bonus of vanilla panna cotta. The most conventional ending is coconut cake treated to grilled peaches
and a scoop of lemon verbena sorbet.
Gravitas benefits from the two-story structure it inherited — 25-foot ceilings, broad windows, walls of brick — and the enhancements installed since Baker’s purchase. Clear glass globes filled with succulents, blond wood seating and light fixtures shaped like Bundt pans soften the interior, at least visually. (Brushed concrete floors look nice, but do nothing to absorb the clatter of a Saturday night.)
Big spender/patient diner alert: A recently introduced, two-seat chef’s counter, facing the open kitchen and served by the chef-owner, extends the format to 15 courses for $240. From my perch in the dining room, I caught bits of the whimsy, and recalled that Baker did a tour of duty seven years ago at the celebrated Minibar by José Andrés.
Part of me can’t wait to sample the long parade of dishes. But part of me thinks I should defer the commitment in light of the yield signs on the standing menu. I’ll make it back eventually, and when I do, it will be in the hope that taste is consistently aligned with appearance. For the moment, beginnings and endings yield the best dividends.