The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
Chef Rob Rubba serves some of my favorite trends: medium-size portions of food that gather accents from around the globe, as well as bread worthy of its own category. Bring on the gnocchi that ricochets from one country to another with the help of pork-kimchi ragu and smoked pecorino! Get down with the citrus-glazed, peanut-strewn ribs, “sticky-crunchy” as advertised! And be sure to ask for the saucer-size seafood-scallion pancake, Seoul food jazzed up with garlic mayonnaise and shaved bonito. The current darling of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, the arty Hazel is a tip of the hat to the chef’s late grandmother, whose fine zucchini bread gets paired with a little jar of foie gras mousse topped off with camomile gelee. She would be proud of an heir whose dining room became the neighborhood hot spot on Day 1.
2 1/2 stars
Hazel: 808 V St. NW. 202-847-4980. hazelrestaurant.com .
Prices: Mains $11- $17.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published July 20, 2016.
Hazel review: Not too big, not too small, and a lot that’s just right
The dish looks like breakfast for dinner: slices of craggy English muffins alongside what the eyes register as a sunny poached egg in a ramekin. But when my sleek wooden spreader makes contact with the “yolk,” it turns out to be a well of olive oil within a circle of thick yogurt. A little digging reveals another surprise: a layer of ’nduja — spicy spreadable salami — hiding beneath the “egg.”
The illusion — and subsequent thrill, as tangy yogurt and fiery pork transform the English muffin into something sensational — comes courtesy of former Talullah chef Rob Rubba. Enlisted by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group to come up with another place to eat, Rubba responded with Hazel in Shaw and (bless him) a collection of medium-size plates that take their cues from around the globe.
The chef’s seafood-scallion pancake could almost pass for the ubiquitous Korean appetizer, except this one is thinner, more refined and includes circles of garlic mayonnaise and shaved bonito — the restaurant accent du jour — in addition to shrimp and rings of calamari. Fried cubes of tofu, draped with a peppery lamb sauce and crunchy with fried chickpeas? Another dish you can’t let go of until there’s nothing left but a grin on your face. (Frying is an art here, judging by the high-rise soft shell crabs, blinged out with trout roe and some of the best I’ve caught this season.) There are clams, too, heaped with wood-smoked potatoes in a steaming broth of brown butter and miso. With the bowl comes a side of rice — a fragrant combination of short-grain and jasmine — which a server advises us to add to the remaining broth after the clams are dispatched: two treats for the price of one!
If you haven’t noticed, medium-size servings are enjoying increasing cachet, as some diners are tiring of small plates and some chefs are listening. “Medium,” you should know, is larger than a typical appetizer and less than the average entree. It’s also a style of eating the chef says he prefers when dining out: “More appetizers than entrees.”
Hazel pays tribute to Rubba’s late grandmother, whose recipe for zucchini bread is incorporated into a dish that uses a few things the New Jersey homemaker surely never cooked with: foie gras mousse, chamomile gelee and bee pollen. (As a kid, Rubba ate the bread with Country Crock margarine.) A lot of chefs trot out steak tartare. Rubba refreshes the workhorse, serving a round of racy minced beef in a circle of crisp potato coins and a liquid French onion dip that almost upstage the raw centerpiece. Easier to resist are the citrus-glazed ribs whose sweetness takes attention from the tender meat.
Rubba designed Hazel’s duck sausage, shot through with black vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns, but has it made by Red Apron, the butcher shop that’s part of NRG’s collection of 20 food establishments.
Undecided? “Chef’s 7” puts the responsibility on the kitchen, which sends out seven dishes it hopes you might like. Rubba says a quarter of Hazel’s clientele are opting for what’s basically a tasting menu sprinkled with surprises, including dishes that have yet to land on the standing script. “Duck Duck” is even more of a feast. The arrangements cost $46 and $50 per chowhound, respectively, and must be ordered by the whole table (the surprises) or a minimum of two (the duck).
In theory, I dig the duck, which is served in two stages atop a handsome walnut lazy Susan. First up are sticky hot-sauced wings, a bowl of fried rice flecked with marigolds and a patch of mixed greens. Could the skin be more crisp? It could. Could the rice be less oily? Sure. The breakout performer is the salad. Strewn with cracklings and glossed with a tart sherry dressing, it’s a sword cutting through the richness of the meal. Next comes another platter with neat rows of steamed buns, sliced duck sausage and spiced duck breast, plus a cast of characters — pickles, kimchi, a ketchup based on black garlic — to enliven the plot. It’s a lot of food for two and, early on, tastes like a dish on training wheels. That kimchi is timid. The buns taste ordinary.
Something sweet? Pastry chef Naomi Gallego has devised a way of serving chocolate in summer that leaves you feeling revived. Splurge, then, on her dark chocolate jasmine custard, almost cloudlike. I’m less enamored of the Japanese-inspired cotton cheesecake, its texture closer to linen, although I make short work of the confection’s cooling yuzu sorbet and coconut ice cream.
The champion liquids team makes sure you’ll drink well at Hazel. Here’s the chance to explore a wine from Georgia (as in the former Soviet Republic); beers from hard-to-find Jester King in Texas and even Estonia; and a cocktail, “All Good Things” — bourbon, sherry and coffee liqueur — that makes its recipient sorry to see all its goodness end.
Like the menu, the interior is quirky and compelling, with a see-through wall of banisters separating Hazel’s front bar from its small dining room, fewer than 40 seats including some plum-colored booths and a collage of artists and images, the latter a colorful tip of the hat to the nearby 9:30 Club. (The cute cloth “bread” baskets are the design of Deb Rubba, the chef’s wife, who used Japanese fabric to hold the zippy rice chips that launch dinner.)
Customers reach the entrance via a side patio, its slender Astroturf lawn outfitted with broad wicker seating and pots of sedums clinging to a brick wall. As parks in the city go, this one is a gem. And if you position yourself right at the bar inside, the picture window captures both patio and summer sunset.
Sophisticated but not stuffy, Hazel feels like the right restaurant at the right time. As an exuberant server put it, eating here “is like a dinner party where there’s no cleanup.” I’ll buy that.